As the dust starts to settle on ‘Serenagate’ I thought it’s about the right time to bring to the table my opinion on the matter. I do this with trepidation, as I am fully aware of the fact that it may not be popular among my fellow darker-hued brothers and sisters, as well as the countless ‘Serena stans’ the world over.
First and foremost it must be stated that I have the utmost respect for Venus and Serena Williams as well as their parents for what they have been able to achieve in a still white elite dominated ‘country club sport’. Having come from a background in competitive swimming I know all too well what it is like to try and navigate your way through an environment that is unwelcoming to your largely physical difference.
Their combined 30 singles, 14 doubles and 4 mixed doubles grand slam championships are the stuff of legends. Throw in a further 4 Olympic gold medals for each and you have 2 of the best athletes of a generation, stemming from one family no less.
While it is not always useful to compare apples with oranges it can be argued their utter dominance not only rose the standard of women’s tennis but female sport in general. They made female athletes across multiple sporting disciplines spend more time in the gym, eat better and train harder all in attempt to mimic their strength and physicality.
This legendary status however, can oft be a double-edged sword as it can often lead to hubris and lead to one thinking that the rules simply do not apply to aforementioned legend. This is some of the behaviour I think led to what can only be described as a meltdown on the part of Mrs Williams during her now infamous US Open final against Naomi Osaka last Saturday night. Before delving deeper it should be stated that Osaka herself is a huge fan of her opponent that she faced in that fabled Saturday night in New York City.
Prior to her match with Williams at the Miami open in late March 2018 a reporter asked her in her presser whether or not she was nervous about the prospect of facing Serena. Without skipping a beat Naomi said “Why would I be, growing up the only people I wanted to play were Maria (Sharapova), Venus and Serena”. It should also be stated that she beat these three giants of the game over a 2-week period that also included her run to the title at Indian Wells, widely considered to be the unofficial fifth slam. On closer inspection it must be stated that the fondness and similarities Naomi shares with her 3 favourite players lies not only in her powerful style of play but also her disposition. She, like Maria, Venus and Serena has an undeniable presence, a boldness and brashness that not only commands attention but demands respect. She is a blended version of these 3 athletes, something I think Williams is aware of and something that I think shook her.
But back to the evening of September 8th 2018. After a fairly lopsided 1st set which Naomi steamrolled through for the loss of just 9 points Serena was rattled. The first set was also the period in which Williams received her 1st of 3 code violations, a warning for ‘coaching’ from her players box. (Which her coach admitted to after the match. His reasoning behind it is where things start to get interesting. He stated “everybody does it” and said further that it was therefore unfair for Serena to be penalised). The point of the matter is ‘they’ broke the rules and ‘they’ got caught, rules are rules!
For those of you who don’t follow tennis it should be understood that communication of any kind, whether gesticulated or verbal are strictly forbidden between coach and player at Grand Slam level. The WTA (Women’s Tennis Association), the circuit the Women play on year-round does however allow 1 90 second period per player, per set where a player’s coach may come on to court at a change of ends to talk strategy. The ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals), the governing body of the year-round Men’s tour does not allow coaching whatsoever at any of its tour level events.
It was during this first stanza that Williams had her first 2 verbal altercations with umpire Carlos Ramos, one of the best match officials in the game renowned for his regimented adherence to the code of conduct. After her serve was again broken early in the second set the wheels well and truly came off for Williams. She slammed her racquet into the ground causing it to break and thereafter received her second code violation resulting in a 1 point deduction. For those of you thinking to yourselves that many a player has thrown a racquet in frustration it must be stated that if one has to change racquets because it can no longer be used a code violation will automatically be given. This was Williams’ second offence and therefore an automatic point deduction.
Over the course of the next 5 or 6 games Williams continued to verbally abuse the umpire over numerous change of ends. Screaming and shouting at him just a couple of metres away from where 20-year old Osaka playing in her first grand slam final was sitting trying to stay in the moment and maintain her composure. This from Williams was a sign of sheer disrespect and bad sportsmanship. Alas the match continued with Osaka continuing to dominate Williams with her superior power and foot speed around the court. While at a change of ends when the match was poised at 6-2 4-3 in Osaka’s favour Williams, in the midst of another rant in which she demanded being apologised to for the umpteenth time and hurling insults at the umpire which need not be mentioned Williams was issued a 3rd code violation. She was therefore docked a game which took the score to 6-2 5-3 automatically in Osaka’s favour.
Serena at this point demanded to see the tournament referee and for 4 minutes held up play while she insinuated that all of this was some slight given the fact that she was a woman, a black woman no less and that men don’t receive the same treatment as this (which I will tackle in a follow-up post). All of this would be good and well except for the fact that she was playing against another woman, another albeit half, black woman! Surely then the accusations of prejudice automatically fall away? After the tantrum concluded and Williams held serve for 4-5 in the second set Osaka stepped up to the line and put Williams away tidily for a 6-2 6-4 victory. The first Grand Slam for any Japanese player in front of a notoriously partisan American crowd on Arthur Ashe stadium, the biggest stage in tennis in front of which Williams had played up for the previous 90 minutes. She deserved nothing but admiration for what she had achieved, instead she was made to play second fiddle to Williams’ theatrics and juvenile behaviour during the trophy presentation, resulting in her being reduced to tears on more than one occasion.
In closing I would just like to say as a black, gay man in Africa I myself have faced prejudice time and time again. I also understand that it is a very scary world out there for minorities and that we have a responsibility to speak out when we feel undermined. However we also cannot conflate the facts to suit our narrative when we break the rules. Sometimes things need to be dealt with in an inter-sectional manner and sometimes things just are as they are. By accusing somebody of misogyny and racism when in fact all they were doing was their job speaks to the ego and sense of self-importance of the accuser. Furthermore one starts to water down the importance of these issues and that is what I find to be the saddest. Aside from the fact of course that she hijacked what was meant to be a celebration of a young, black, female athlete who had just achieved a childhood dream.