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.

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Enhancing Performance

After watching Katie Ledecky win her fourth gold medal at this year’s Olympics, beating her second-place opponent by 11 seconds in the 800 meter free-style race I immediately thought “I wonder what she’s on.” It’s sad. I have no reason whatever to believe that this young women took anything to enhance her performance, but in this day and age when anyone wins big one immediately wonders what that person was on.

For so many years we could simply enjoy the thrills and spills that are sports, getting satisfaction from the remarkable feats of strength and grace. “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Now that’s all done and gone. I suppose Lance Armstrong was the one who spoiled it for me. Or was it Barry Bonds? Or Roger Clemens? Anyway, there seem to have been so many “great” athletes who, it was discovered, cheated and had a leg up in their goal to achieve great things in sports. They have spoiled it for me.

I watch an athlete like Katie Ledecky win her race by such a large margin and I cannot get it out of my head that if she’s that much better than her opponent she, too, much have had a letup. The same is true of Serena Williams who is big and much stronger than so many of her opponents. I don’t want to believe it, but the seed has been planted and it has grown into a thorny bush that pricks and stings and makes every great moment in sports a moment of suspicion and doubt. How sad.

Sports are one of the few places left in our world where people are rewarded for their wins and punished for their losses, where there is success and failure — and many athletes at all levels of play learn important lessons from both winning and losing. But when winning is tainted by the suspicion (well-founded or not) that there was cheating involved it makes the entire enterprise dark and shadowy. That is not as it should be by any means. But that is what Performance Enhancing Drugs have brought to sports. All successful athletes play under a cloud of doubt and the only thing we can do — and we do it — is to think “well, everyone else does it, so what’s the difference?” We try not to think of it.

As I say, that’s not the way it should be. It’s not fair. We should rejoice with Katy Ledecky and admire the determination and skill of this remarkable athlete and the wonders she performs in the pool. But, because of that thorny bush, I find it difficult to do any more. How sad.