For three days now, many – including herself – have tried to make the great Serena Williams into a champion of a larger social cause. That cause: Fighting for a woman’s right to act like just as much a toolbox as any man who has ever taken the court.
How does anyone work up a passionate argument for turning misbehavior into martyrdom? How do they confuse the ugliest kind of loser whose outbursts hijacked what should have been the grandest moment of U.S. Open winner Naomi Osaka’s lifetime for a crusader?
Yet, here we are all these days later and the various news outlets are still stewing over the greater statement made by Williams in Saturday’s open final while she was turning her racket into some twisted modern art and calling the chair umpire a liar and a thief.
We have ventured into a series of deep discussions about double standards in tennis, about how men apparently get away with routinely de-pantsing officials while women players are expected to act as if every match is a cotillion. We are all so ready to inject issues of race and gender into every situation that we have become unable to recognize boorish, unprofessional conduct when it plays out on the largest, most public of stages.
At least NBC sports commentator and former tennis pro Mary Carillo made some sense.
“A lot of these people that are weighing in and saying double standard,” Carillo said in a MSNBC interview. “I’m saying, you know what? This is not the hill you want to die on.”
Carillo also noted: “At her very best – and she is very often at her very best – I respect and admire Serena beyond measure. She is so powerful, she’s an important voice, she’s a ferocious competitor.
“But at her very worst, as she was on this night, she acts like a bully.”
This all could have been avoided, of course. Had only Williams been winning that final match, she would have been able to control her fury. But she was getting beaten at every turn, not something she is accustomed to or something she handles with any sort of grace.
Saturday was hardly the first time Williams has shown this side of herself at the Open. In the 2009 semifinals, after telling the lineswoman who called foot fault on her that she’d like to shove a tennis ball down her throat, Williams was assessed a penalty point that decided the match for Kim Clijsters. She had another tirade against the chair umpire in 2011 as she was losing the Open final to Samantha Stoser.
By now the facts of her latest episode are indisputable.
Williams was assessed a first code violation – basically a warning – for crossing the archaic rule against coaching. Her coach, Patrick Mouatoglou clearly was signaling her from the stands, and he said so.
She was penalized again, this time losing a point, after losing her serve in the second set and sentencing her racket to death. No disputing that.
Ultimately, she was penalized a game for a third violation for verbal abuse after clearly verbally abusing the chair umpire. John McEnroe called officials worse in his day, but is that really the bar you want to set for your own code of personal conduct?
At one point, tennis’ most famous new mother played that card, too: “I have a daughter, and I stand for what’s right,” she informed chair umpire Carlos Ramos.
Williams does not own the patent on parenting, although coverage of her impressive comeback after giving birth sometimes suggests that. A tip from one parent to another: If you daughter behaves in the store like you behaved on court, don’t congratulate her, send her to timeout.
Of all that was said and written about this sad moment for tennis, I found myself nodding in agreement most to the words of former champion Martina Navratilova.
A couple of selections from her opinion piece in the New York Times:
“Serena Williams has part of it right. There is a huge double standard for women when it comes to how bad behavior is punished – and not just in tennis.
“But in her protests against an umpire during the United States Open final on Saturday, she also got part of it wrong. I don’t believe it’s a good idea to apply a standard of ‘If men can get away with it, women should be able to, too.’ Rather, I think the question we have to ask ourselves is this: What is the right way to behave to honor our sport and to respect our opponents?”
And then, there was this:
“If, in fact, the guys are treated with a different measuring stick for the same transgressions, this needs to be thoroughly examined and must be fixed. But we cannot measure ourselves by what we think we should also be able to get away with. In fact, this is the sort of behavior that no one should be engaging in on the court.”
So, enough already, with even turning Williams’ flaws into virtues.