This past Saturday, the legendary Serena Williams competed against 20-year old Naomi Osaka in this year’s U.S. Open Championships in New York. Osaka, who was born to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, prevailed in an emotional, gut-wrenching 6–2 6-4 defeat over Williams, thus becoming the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam single title. But this historic final between two women of color proved to be the visual representation of what happens when Black women have the audacity stand up for themselves.
During the second set, the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, of whom has had a history of clashing with players over the years, gave Williams a game penalty after he said that she had accrued three violations: receiving coaching, smashing a racket in frustration, and then verbally abusing the umpire after the initial penalties. Williams refuted two of the three penalties, annoyed at the fact that the Ramos thought Serena Williams — that’s right, Serena Williams — was cheating. This was moments before she uttered the historic words:
“I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose.”
I have been lucky enough to witness Serena on the court at the 2014 US Open as well as off the court during my freshman year in college. I have played tennis competitively, nationally up through the collegiate level, with Serena being my favorite athlete of all time. Because I am a fan of tennis and know how to play, I can speak to the misconceptions of “cheating” in a sport like this.
Tennis isn’t a game of nuance. It a game with rules that are supposed to be standard for whoever is operating within them. However, even though Serena has been playing at the highest level of the game for two decades, the rules for her are different, strict, and unfair.
So she spoke up for herself. But people only want to think of entertainers, musicians, athletes, and celebrities alike purely in the lens they are most known for. The “shut up and play” notion is not new. Even so, when you’re a Black woman, there is further scrutiny on you and your actions. And just in case that’s not enough, because she is the greatest of all time, (and people still refuse to accept that or believe she somehow has a rivalry with Maria Sharapova — of whom has actually cheated), anything less than heroic acts from her are seen as a tainted aspect or flaw of her character. Because she is black, a woman, a mother, and so very talented, the media and everyone around it will try to tear her down and reduce her to the Angry Black Woman trope.
And even if she is being angry whilst being a black woman, she has every right to be.
Serena need not conform to whatever respectability politics box tennis fans, umpires, and sportscasters have been trying to force her into. She speaks up for herself and wears what she wants, and that bothers people. It bothers people to the point where her behavior has the ability to take away or tarnish a whole match. Still, it is worth mentioning that the game of tennis, like any sport, is not a show prioritized for an audience’s enjoyment. She defended her honor on one of the grandest stages in a sport she’s dominated for her entire life that continually disrespects her, and she won’t stop.
“I’m here to fight for women’s rights and women’s equality […] The fact that I have to go through this is an example. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.”
Regardless, many headlines covering the final and Serena’s behavior included animalistic, uncontrollable words people use to describe Black men and women when all they do is stand up for themselves. She was described as having a meltdown and being overly emotional, even though she was the victim of the already-existing double standard in tennis. She said to the umpire: “There are a lot of men out here who have said a lot of things and do not get that punishment. Because I am a woman you are going to take this away from me? That is not right.”
And Serena’s not wrong. There is no way a men’s player with Serena resume would get a third code violation for that language in the finals of a major. There’s just no way. There are, literally, so many players that have done far worse than Serena without receiving a penalty. But for Serena, Saturday night’s “outbursts” costed her $17,000.
The double standard in tennis spreads further than point penalties and temper tantrums though. Only women get warnings for shirt changes, even though even in my collegiate tennis experience, men will routinely walk around and play the game shirtless, and would even go as far as change their shorts on the court, in between sets, while no one batted an eye. Just last week at the U.S. Open, Alize Cornet was penalized for briefly taking her shirt off to turn it around, after noticing it was on backwards. With regards to Serena, only a few weeks ago, the French Open said it would introduce a dress code that would ban outfits like the catsuit worn by Williams during the French Open — a suit she wears to prevent blood clots.
Unfortunately, the dichotomy of the treatment between male and female players was not the only gendered aspect of the U.S. Open. Noami Osaka, after winning the title and making history, apologized to the crowd, even though she had nothing to apologize for.
As a 20 year old, I am aware of the problem many people my age and younger have with regards to apologizing in situations where we didn’t do anything. We may apologize in class before asking a question, apologize for our presence, and in this case, apologize for winning fairly. It was heartbreaking seeing Osaka feel the need to pull her visor down, embarrassed, and in tears after receiving her first ever grand slam title. She stated, “I know that everyone was cheering for (Williams) and I’m sorry it had to end like this. I want to say thank you for watching the match.” She then added, after turning to Williams, “it was always my dream to play Serena in the US Open final. I’m really glad I was able to do that. I’m really grateful I was able to play with you. Thank you.”
Because Serena stood up for herself, and Osaka was visibly upset, and because people don’t know how to properly discuss women without pitting them against each other, headlines perpetuated the false notion that Serena took Osaka’s moment away from her. In reality, Serena was amicable and respectful of Osaka. She actually has a good relationship with a lot of other professional women tennis players (most notably, another favorite of mine, Caroline Wozniacki) and never shows animosity or hate towards the other person.
On Saturday, she acknowledged the fact that Osaka played really well and earned the win. She realized her behavior was uncharacteristic of her, as a lot of sports may bring out in people, and she admitted Osaka played better than she did. Williams used her platform not to trash talk the umpire or the tournament, or lament her loss, but to calm down the booing crowd and focus the attention on Osaka’s win. “Let’s make this the best moment we can and we’ll get through it,” she said. “Let’s give everyone the credit where credit’s due.”
The events that unfolded at the U.S. Open show the difficulty of being accepted and heard, especially when the events deal with two women of color. To see the devastation that the penalties brought on, leaving both competitors and the audience upset, was appalling. Fortunately, the overwhelming support for and discussion surrounding Serena Williams highlights the enduring memory of how difficult it is for women of color to make it in expensive, mostly white sports. The us open was a visual of what women of color rejecting the status quo and lifting each other up looks like. And for world-class athletes, Serena Williams remains one of the most generous, classy, and outright talented. Even though she lost on Saturday, she is winning at something much more momentous.