Serena Williams picked the wrong time to make the right point
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Serena Williams picked the wrong time to make the right point

Let's be clear: tennis has a problem with gender equality.

Although men and women earn the same prize money at Grand Slam tournaments, there's a wide pay gap overall. (Not all tournaments have equal pay, so Serena Williams has earned tens of millions of dollars less than Novak Djokovic even though she has many more Grand Slam singles titles.).

At the US Open, the French player Alizé Cornet received a penalty for temporarily removing her shirt on court and inadvertently flashing her sports bra. When male players change shirts, no one thinks twice about it.

Williams gestures towards chair umpire Carlos Ramos during her US Open final defeat.

Williams gestures towards chair umpire Carlos Ramos during her US Open final defeat.Credit:EPA

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Last week at the US Open, one chair umpire gave Australian player Nick Kyrgios a pep talk during a match in which Kyrgios appeared to be tanking. "I've seen your matches," he said. "You're great for tennis. I can see that. I know this is not you."

That might have been something the chair umpire Carlos Ramos could have said to defuse the tension in the women's final on Saturday, which descended into chaos when he penalised Serena Williams in the second, decisive set.

Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams after the women's final of the US Open.

Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams after the women's final of the US Open. Credit:AP

She imploded after Ramos issued her a warning about receiving illegal coaching and then penalised her twice later in the second set, once when she threw down her racquet and then again after she called him a liar and a thief.

Naomi Osaka, a 20-year-old from Japan, showed amazing poise amid the disarray and overpowered her childhood hero during her win, which was her first Grand Slam title.

But there was hardly an ounce of joy in the victory. The match tarnished tennis and was a stinging blow to sportsmanship.

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There are some very real issues of gender equality in tennis, a sport I have covered for more than 15 years, and Williams got people talking about them. Unto itself, that's a wonderful thing.

But it must also be pointed out that the match was ruined, and Osaka's great moment was clouded, because Williams let her temper get the best of her and Ramos couldn't find a better way to retake control of the match.

Williams, marching through this tournament, was hoping to win her first Grand Slam title after giving birth to her daughter last year. At 36, she is a woman who made it to the top of the sports world after growing up in Compton, California, and as an African-American has had to endure all sorts of abuse from opposing players, officials, executives and fans, and then even has to deal with blowback of her clothing choices. She wore a catsuit at the French Open this year, only for the tournament's officials to ban it for the future because it "didn't respect the game and the place".

It must be hard to carry that burden as a role model for so many.

Serena Williams smashes her racket.

Serena Williams smashes her racket.Credit:AP

Let us not forget, though, that the biggest burden she probably faces is people always trying to beat her on the court, and across the net on Saturday was a formidable, frustrating opponent whom many see as a younger version of herself.

So instead of a match for the ages, the heralding of a young and deserving talent, it will probably be remembered for Williams' calling the umpire a sexist liar and later saying her complaints were made for the equal rights of all women.

But on closer examination, it's also true that this umpire has been tough on top male players, too. The difference is that the men didn't belabor their arguments with him.

Serena Williams argues with chair umpire Carlos Ramos.

Serena Williams argues with chair umpire Carlos Ramos.Credit:EPA

Williams' tirade wasn't a pretty moment for a woman who is an icon for women, female athletes, African-Americans and working mothers. She's so much better than the Serena Williams who showed up on Saturday.

"Had I behaved like that on a tennis court, I would have expected to get everything that happened to Serena," said Martina Navratilova, who won 18 Grand Slam singles titles and a record nine Wimbledon titles, and has been a longtime advocate for equality in the sport. "It should've ended right there with the point warning, but Serena just couldn't let it go."

She added, "She completely had the right message about women's inequality, but it wasn't the right time to bring it up."

Ramos officiated with his usual exacting eye. He gave Williams a warning for receiving coaching in the second set. His action was warranted because Williams' coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, admitted to coaching her.

Naomi Osaka, of Japan, holds the trophy after defeating Serena Williams.

Naomi Osaka, of Japan, holds the trophy after defeating Serena Williams.Credit:Invision

But Williams exploded into a tantrum that included her shouting that she would never cheat because she is a mother now and wants to be a good example for her daughter. She pointed her finger and demanded an apology from Ramos.

You can argue the nuances. Lots of coaches coach and lots of players are coached from off the court. And lots of umpires don't call them on it. You also have to wonder if Williams would have gone after Ramos so relentlessly — and with such conviction to stand up for women's rights — if she were winning.

Williams told Ramos that her coach had just given her a thumbs-up. But Mouratoglou appeared to be gesturing for Williams to move to the net, and move to the net she did, and it started to work for her.

Later, after losing a game, Williams smashed her racket, and Ramos docked her a point, as the rules require. When her tirade against Ramos continued, he could have warned her that she was going too far. But he chose to stoke the fire. He penalised her one game for verbal abuse. She came back to say that Ramos did it only because she was a woman.

Female players are sick of the double standards and snide comments, as they should be. But the events Saturday shouldn't be included in this long list of injustices.

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I tried to explain this to my 6-year-old daughter, who missed the match but wanted to know the result.

I'm bringing up my daughter because Williams brought up her motherhood in the first place.

"I have a daughter and stand for what's right for her," she told Ramos on the court as she insisted that she'd never cheat.

It was a tough conversation to tell your child about how Williams had opportunities to put the first penalty behind her and snap back into focusing on the game, but didn't.

Billie Jean King, a pioneer for women's equality in sports, weighed in on Twitter.

"When a woman is emotional, she's 'hysterical' and she's penalised for it," King wrote. "When a man does the same, he's 'outspoken' and there are no such repercussions. Thank you, Serena Williams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same."

Hard to argue with that. But it was disappointing that King said nothing about the poor timing of Williams' powerful voice. It made me think back to last year's Open, when the Italian player Fabio Fognini unleashed a barrage of Italian curses upon a female umpire and was kicked out of the tournament.

So sometimes, there are repercussions.

Rafael Nadal feuded with Ramos during last year's French Open, and Djokovic did so at Wimbledon. "Double standards, my friend, double standards," Djokovic said to Ramos. Those players vented and moved on without derailing the entire match.

Bad officiating permeates sports. But you expect top players to gripe and move on.

Nobody should get a pass for bad behaviour. Williams reminded the crowd of that on the awards podium. She asked the fans to stop booing and to recognise Osaka's achievement.

Williams said, "Maybe it was the mum in me that was like, 'Listen, we got to pull ourselves together here.'"

Finally, words befitting one of the greatest athletes ever.

New York Times