Serena’s Meltdown

Whether or not you follow women’s tennis, and I dare say most do not, the recent women’s final at the U.S. Open made a loud enough noise to be heard by anyone who wasn’t even listening. The winner was a young 20 year-old Japanese woman by the name of Naomi Osaka who beat possibly the best woman in tennis in the person of Serena Williams. But the match was marred by an outburst by Serena Williams that received all the attention while the deserving Osaka was largely ignored.

Osaka won the first set of a best-of-three final easily, 6-2. Serena has lost the first set in tournaments often and usually she is able to come back. In this case it is my humble opinion that she would not have done so. But we’ll never know because of the meltdown. At the start of the second set she was warned by an overly zealous umpire about receiving coaching — which is a problem in tennis on both the men’s and women’s side. It is commonplace for the coaches sitting in the gallery to use hand signals to help their charges win their matches. But it is a rule that coaching is not to be allowed. Williams was warned and she approached the chair and, filled with righteous indignation, insisted that she would never cheat to win, that she was not being coached. As it turned out, she was being signaled by her coach but it appears she was playing no attention to him whatever. In any event, she soon hit a backhand into the net and threw her racket at the court and broke it. She was given a second warning for “racket abuse,” also a rule. The second warning resulted in a point for her opponent in the next game. As the players changed ends and sat for a breather she opened up against the umpire and began her well publicized “meltdown.” She charged the umpire with theft and demanded an apology (for what it is not clear). He then penalized her a third time for abusing the umpire and this time it cost her a game. The score at the change-over was 4-3 in Osaka’s favor. With the penalty it was now 5-3.

Serena managed to “keep it together” for the next game and won. But then Osaka, keeping her poise and playing the sort of tennis that had made her the far better player to that point, won the match the next time she served. She won the match 6-2, 6-4 while Serena continued to simmer. The crowd booed loudly, as their American countrywoman — in their eyes — was being cheated out of a victory that would have tied her with the famous Margaret Court for the most wins in women’s tennis.

Much has been said and written about the event, though very little of what has been said and written had anything to do with the match itself. Mostly people wanted to jump in with charges of “sexism” against the umpire (which is possible, as his overly zealous calls were a bit unusual, though he has a reputation for being a hard-liner when it comes to the rules and has ruled against the men as well as the women. But he was a bit over the edge in this match. “Sexist” is somewhat questionable, but he certainly was overly zealous). Most of what has been written and said, as noted, was about Serena and this is sad because Naomi Osaka played a superb match. She was quicker, stronger, more tenacious than her 37 year-old opponent. One must wonder if the latter’s outbursts and eventual meltdown were not more about her losing a match to a younger, more athletic player than it was about an umpire who was too eager to apply the rules of tennis.

It’s time for a disclaimer, I suppose. I am no fan of Serena Williams. I think she wins by intimidation: she is bigger and stronger than most of her opponents though she lacks certain fundamental skills that she is able to disguise with her power and strength (such as poor footwork). But she is a proven winner and the crowd was solidly behind her and the hype was extraordinary and perhaps a bit of a distraction, something that may have had her a bit on edge to start with. But she has shown in the past a tendency to lose her temper when behind in a tennis match, twice berating line-judges when she was losing her matches.

But in the end, it was Osaka’s day and she was lost in the kerfuffle, even brought to tears. And this is too bad as she is one of the best women tennis players I have seen play the game (and I coached women’s tennis for nearly twenty years). She is quick, agile, has a powerful serve (every bit as powerful as Serena’s). She was the real winner in every way. Serena was gracious in defeat at the awards ceremony, urging the crowd to stop with their boos and catcalls. But Osaka was the real winner though in the end very few thought it worth mentioning. Such has American sports and entertainment become. We want car crashes, fights, sparks, and loud noise; not superbly played sports events.


19 thoughts on “Serena’s Meltdown

  1. …and a tennis coach too? Who would have guessed it! Speaking of organized sports, I went to see the fights the other day and a hockey game broke out… OK, old joke. I don’t do watching sports. As to fans, I am reminded of the 1936 Nazi Olympics and Jesse Owens winning 4 gold medals… that must have really stung that ubermenschen blond, blue-eyed white supremacist bunch. I believe that was the telling moment when Hitler and his cabal actually lost their bid to dominate the world. Beware, America, history has a nasty habit of repeating itself.

  2. As you know, I’m not a sports follower, and had only seen a couple of headlines with Serena William’s name in them, but wasn’t curious enough to check it out, so this is the first time I heard the story. Sounds like Ms. Williams is a bit of a primadonna? It speaks volumes that fans are booing Ms. Osaka … anybody ever heard of good sportsmanship???

    • I think they were booing the umpire (who was quietly ushered out of the stadium!). But I don’t know if Ms Osaka knew that. She may have thought the boos were for her — as some probably were.

  3. It’s hard when you are an accomplished winner to take defeat without a blink , I remember Andy Murray swiping out at a harmless butterfly in a fit of temper after things did not go well. I think it takes a certain tenacious character to rise up the ranks of any sport , and having risen into the public eye they have a reputation to maintain. The good news is failure is a great teacher and soon humbles the proud.

  4. Dear Hugh,

    I agree with you that this should have been Naomi Osaka’s win, period, end of story. She deserves all the accolades that’s being heaped on her.

    But-but-but, I hate it when the umpire in any game becomes the story. By his intervention, he marred the game, both for Serena Williams and for Naomi Osaka. He had the power to get Serena Williams’ attention in a more constructive way, bur he chose to act like a jerk on a power trip.

    As I watched the game, it was my perception that Serena Williams was not paying attention to the coach, and that is why she blew up when accused. Those present have said that Ms. Osaka’s coach was doing likewise.

    This does not change that fact Serena Williams suffered a meltdown that was far from constructive. It can be said she behaved badly. She’s human.

    It is my opinion that both Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka were harmed. Ms. Osaka deserved to win in a game that would not be historically marred with controversy and Ms. Serena deserved to lose, fair and square. She also deserved her chance for a come back or not.

    While Naomi Osaka is the true winner, she was robbed of the full glory she earned.

    Hugs, Gronda

    • I couldn’t agree more: the umpire or referee should never be the story. But he was in this case and, as you say, it marred a wonderfully played match and the well-deserved victory of Naomi Osaka who played the match of her life against the best in the world — and her childhood hero.

  5. Hugh, looking past the veracity of who is at fault, it is a shame Naomi Osaka did not get her due accolades for beating the best player in recent memory. I have never been a fan of tennis players showing their hind end on the court, male or female. That dates back to Nastase, Conners, McEnroe, Navratilova, etc.

    I remember the great pitcher Orel Hershisher who said you had to put mistakes behind you. He was known for his mental toughness and battling through mistakes. The great golfer Greg Norman could have won many more championships had he not let mistakes bother him so. Serena is typically mentally tough and has often rallied after losing the first set. On this day, she was facing a strong player, so she let mistakes get the best of her.

    I am glad she at least quieted the crowd at the award ceremony. Osaka deserved much more, though. Keith

  6. This is a copy of my Facebook post on this topic from a few days ago.

    My response to this event is based upon my extensive experience as a soccer player, coach, and official. I know little about tennis, so I cannot comment on its finer points, but I do know it is a sport governed by rules.

    From my soccer-based vantage point, two things are clear:

    (1) Any player who acted like Ms. Williams did on a soccer field would be given a red card, ejected from the game, and sanctioned by either the league or the tournament officials, or both.

    (2) Any official who tolerated such behavior would be subject to formal review.

    If the official involved in this incident treated others more leniently in the past, then that is sufficient cause for reviewing the conduct of that official — whatever the reason. Interestingly, that is not the obvious case here.

    The question of Ms. William’s conduct is a separate matter, but it is crucial.

    Both officials and players are responsible for and should be held accountable for their own conduct under the prevailing rules of the sport and the tournament in which they are participating. If participants are not held to the rules, then the sport loses its defining character as an artificially-challenging exercise governed by accepted rules.

    If that is too nuanced, then think about it this way: How do you want your children to act when they participate in sports — or in daily life, for that matter? If someone else gets away with inappropriate behavior, is that therefore and for that reason sufficient justification for your child to break the rules? Though some parents would answer this in the affirmative (I report sadly), my experience suggests that most would not. Deflection is a poor form of ethical argument.

    Some of Ms. Williams’ supporters have not only tried to excuse her conduct by referring to the similar-yet-unsanctioned behavior of others, they have broadly accused tennis itself of being generally racist and sexist, as well as specifically biased against Ms. Williams.

    Do I believe that racism and sexism exist in professional tennis? Of course. Each is like a virus that invades the entire human body and tennis is a part of the body social. Yet that is precisely why rules are so important.

    Do I suspect that Ms. Williams likely has been subjected to differential treatment with respect to drug testing? I think this is a plausible speculation, but I have yet to see clear and documented evidence that this is the case.

    In any case, the appropriate response is not to exempt Ms. Williams from the consequences of her own conduct by blaming others for theirs. Deflection is not the response required here.

    The appropriate response is (1) to hold those who have made inappropriate decisions accountable, and (2) to hold Ms. Williams accountable for her own conduct. Each outcome must be determined by the prevailing rules of the sport, not by the public outcry of those less-informed of both rules and facts.

    These two responses are not mutually exclusive. Both are crucial to the integrity of any sport. Indeed, the acceptance of personal responsibility is essential to integrity itself.

    Just saying…

    • This, it seems to me, is the crux of the matter: “In any case, the appropriate response is not to exempt Ms. Williams from the consequences of her own conduct by blaming others for theirs. Deflection is not the response required here.”
      Serena owes the game of tennis a great deal — she has become very wealthy and famous by playing a game. She is a very good player, but she has shown glimpses of her temper before; this is not new — just a bit more extreme.
      But my point focuses on the sad fact that Naomi Osaka played the match of her life and this was almost totally ignored by a public that thirsts for a drink that will satisfy its insatiable desire for gossip.

      • You make a good point. It is sad that much of the focus has been on Williams’s execrable behavior rather than upon Osaka’s exemplary performance.

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