On Saturday evening a 36 year old mother and a 20 year old lady walked on a court to play a game. It just so happened there were around 23,000 people there to witness this game and countless millions watching on various devices around the world.
On this occasion, it was the younger lady who managed to win this game of tennis. In the first set of this match she managed to win 31 points to the opponents 21. In the second set they both won 29 points. Unfortunately, the talking point was not the fantastic play of the 20 year old. It was the fact the umpire judged it appropriate to hand 5 points to the 20 year old. I have thought a lot about this over the last 48 hours so have decided to offer my take on the proceedings.
The three main talking points are:
Carlos Ramos umpiring skills
Serena Williams behaviour
So let’s start with the umpire. He is, without doubt, one of the most respected and experienced umpires in tennis. His reputation is he is firm but fair. He is a stickler for the rules and has a history of enforcing them.
At 1-0 up 15-40 down he witnessed, Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, clearly instructing Serena to try and move up the court more. This is coaching and against the rules so Carlos awarded a warning for coaching. The debates, from the experts, seems to revolve around the idea the umpire could have given a ‘soft warning’ and spoken with Serena warned her if it continued he would have to give her an official code violation for coaching. The fact is, as the umpire, it is at his discretion and he chose to give the immediate code for coaching.
Let’s move move on to Serena’s behaviour.
When she received the code, she marched up to the umpires chair and said, amongst other things ‘I don’t cheat, I’d rather lose than cheat’. At this moment, in the commentary booth, Jim Courier said “just when you think you couldn’t admire someone any more, she says that”. I thought this was a brilliant thing to say in such an emotive moment.
At 2-1 up in the second set, Serena and Carlos have another exchange and it is clear Serena’s main objective is to make sure the umpire knows she is not a cheater. At which point he puts his hand on his heart and says “I know that”. To which she replies “thank you so much”.
Serena breaks in the next game and seems to have the fire in her belly.
At 3-1 30-15, she inexplicably serves back to back double faults then plays an unforced error to hand the break back. In disgust, she throws her racket to the ground and smashes it. This is an easy code violation for the umpire and he orders it and awards a point penalty to Naomi. What is interesting is, Serena genuinely didn’t seem to know she was 15-0 down going into the next game. Things heat up pretty quickly.
Serena marched to the chair again and demanded an apology from the umpire. At the heart of her dialogue was the feeling she had been called a cheater. If we apply logic to this, she hadn’t been accused of anything. Her coach had visibly coached her but, as the player, she receives the warning. Serena brings the fact she is a mother into the equation and she has clearly switched her focus off of the match.
At 4-3 down she tells Carlos he has attacked her character, consistently demands an apology and then calls him a liar. Again, let’s apply logic here, what has he lied about? She then demands he says sorry. During the majority of this exchange the umpire continues to have his hand on his heart. When he is called a liar his demeanour changes and you can see him becoming more introspective. At the end of this exchange Serena states he is a thief as he has stolen a point from her. It was at this moment Carlos decides to apply another coach for verbal abuse resulting in a game penalty.
Official rule is “verbal abuse is defined as a statement about an official, opponent, sponsor, spectator or other person that implies dishonesty or is derogatory, insulting or otherwise abusive.”
It is clear the umpire was well within his rights to issue this penalty as he has been called a liar and a thief. The debate seems to revolve around the fact Serena did not swear. Panelists seemed to be defending her by saying she did not drop any ‘f-bombs’. Swearing is an audible obscenity offence. In this case it was the context of the word and not bad language which resulted in the code.
Serena then called the tournament referee and supervisor on. It was at this point she broached the sexism topic. This is where my opinions may slightly differ from many. My initial reaction on hearing these words was that Serena was clutching and she had become desperate to shift blame and responsibility. However the more I think about this, I think she has a point. Would Carlos handled this affair exactly the same if it has been Roger vs Rafa? I am not so sure.
Is Carlos Ramos sexist? I don’t believe he is consciously sexist but as with most beliefs, they are deep rooted. If we flip the situation and imagine this was a male player speaking to a female umpire, would the world defend the male player or throw him to the lions? Is that sexist?
Sexism is such an emotive topic and not one I believe is going to be solved overnight, and definitely not in this blog. However, I do believe sexism exists in most walks of life, and the vast majority of the time, it is extremely deeply rooted in the sub-conscious. I also believe it works both ways, from men to women and from women to men. The difference is, because of the history of imbalance, the most effective way for a women to address the topic is a conscious way. Ie say what they are thinking.
Women are being encouraged, correctly, to speak up on the topic and this has its pros and cons. The advantage is that things will, quite rightly change, much quicker than if left to their own devices. The disadvantage is, until equality becomes normal behaviour, we will have a period of extreme discomfort and arguments about the subject. It is too easy for a man to say ‘she’s just playing the sexism card’ and, I believe the reason is, women have to play it if change is going to happen.
At the end of the match, Serena showed her humility by embracing Naomi at the net, in putting an arm around the shoulder of Naomi during the boos of the presentation ceremony and again, in verbally requesting the boos stop when she had the microphone.
So, in summary, did Carlos Ramos umpire this match well? I believe he did.
Did Serena behave badly? In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think she did. Demanding an apology was slightly uncomfortable to watch. I don’t prescribe to the idea of her setting a bad example to children. When I watched the re-run again this morning my daughter asked me what she was doing. I replied ‘she is just fighting for what she believes in’. My daughter didn’t even bat an eyelid and dipped back into her rice krispies. When it comes to setting an example to children, it is the parents that have the responsibility to do this, not sports stars.
Is Carlos Ramos sexist? I don’t believe he umpired that match in a consciously sexist way. Was Serena right to play the sexist card? On reflection, I think she was as I am not convinced it would have happened in the mens final if the circumstance had been exactly the same. I do not believe Carlos Ramos is sexist but I do have questions about how deep-rooted sexism goes across the board.
Sexism does exist but it is getting better very quickly because women are, quite rightly, being encouraged to speak out when they feel aggrieved. This infuriates some men but unfortunately it is the most effective way for change to be accelerated and men are going to have to suck it up until things change.
I genuinely believe in years to come, children will not believe that sexism was such a big deal in the year 2018. I would love it if Olympia grows up to believe this and know her mum had something to do with it.
Serena Williams is not guilty of behaving badly. She is guilty of showing that she is not super-human, she is human after all.