Press Box: Serena backlash sets double standard

Illustration by Steck Von

Adam Cheek Staff Writer

The second weekend of September brought the heralded U.S. Open women’s tennis tournament to its conclusion as the final pitted the legendary Serena Williams against relative newcomer Naomi Osaka.

Williams — reportedly one of Osaka’s heroes as she rose up through the ranks of tennis — has emerged victorious in nearly every event she has competed in, winning title after title and cementing her place among some of this generation’s best athletes.

Despite all this, the sequence of events over the course of the U.S. Open women’s final brought controversy, anger and support from all angles. The match saw several penalties handed to Williams via chair umpire Carlos Ramos, many of which Williams took issue with. These infractions included coaching, racket abuse and verbal attacks on the umpire. Williams had several discussions with both Ramos and officials at the match.

Online criticism following the match was rife with insults and attacks directed toward Williams, presenting a double standard rooted in hypocrisy and inherent gender bias. Williams had every right to be displeased with a call she felt she did not deserve, and her reaction — justified or not — certainly did not call for the backlash she received.

Among other factors during the final, Williams took offense to the penalties she received, seeming to come to an understanding with the umpire at one point. Later, after Ramos tacked on more infractions, she threatened he would never umpire another match of hers and demanded an apology, calling him a “liar” and a “thief.”

After meeting with officials, Williams accused Ramos of penalizing her because she was a woman, implying sexist and racist rulings on his part and referencing previous penalties she had received. Osaka held serve in the following set to win the set 6-4 and the title in straight sets.

After the match concluded and footage of the incident hit the internet, Twitter and other social media entities lit up with opinions, ranging from insults to support. With multiple angles of various opinions, there still seems to be no consensus.

The aftermath of the match put a critical double standard on display. For example, the great John McEnroe frequently had heated arguments with officials and umpires during his career. McEnroe earned a reputation as a competitive player and a hothead, known for having an easily inflamed temper.

Now, who’s to say Williams’ incident was any different? Granted, her reputation is one of a cool, calm, collected staple on the court, not easily rattled. On some level, her exchange with the umpire was an anomaly, given her history. Maybe the norms of tennis have changed so much that outbursts are no longer accepted.

There is a massive rift in that logic, however. In August, French player Benoît Paire smashed two rackets in frustration at the Citi Open, receiving only a point penalty. Social media platforms saw very little of Paire’s outburst, and any blowback that might have occurred died down quickly.

Williams made a reasonable argument when asserting that Ramos penalized her harshly because she was a woman. Granted, Williams’ reaction was a relative anomaly among female tennis players, but historically, male athletes in the sport are given more of a reprieve in these situations. McEnroe and Paire are just a few of those players. Male players to this day seem to receive that pass more often.

It’s quite possible — and the stark difference between the backlash following the two incidents seems to support this — that there exists a sexist and racist bias behind the public’s reaction.

Williams fought back against these penalties in the same spirit as how she has battled back against societal norms in recent years. The icon continues to fight for equal pay for women and has supported the LGBTQIA community and movements such as Black Lives Matter.

Associate Director of the Humanities Research Center at VCU Brooke Newman penned an article published in The Washington Post on the incident and the resounding aftermath. Newman not only raised strong arguments against detractors of Williams but also provided a history of adverse depictions of African-American women. Williams’ depiction in a cartoon published in an Australian newspaper enters those ranks as she is portrayed as an angry, overweight, large-lipped player throwing a tantrum.

This reaction goes beyond just public critique, as some tennis umpires have considered forming a union and even boycotting Williams’ future matches.

Whatever the future of this debate holds, it clearly presents a double standard rooted in hypocrisy and inherent gender bias. Williams was rightfully displeased with a call she did not agree with, and her subsequent reaction — right or wrong — did not deserve the attacks and outright hatred directed at her in the following days.

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