The race is not always to the swift.
Saturday’s US Open Women’s Final was a topic of much debate after famed tennis player Serena Williams lost to her opponent Naomi Osaka. Many have claimed that chair umpire of the match Carlos Ramos effected the outcome.
Issues began in the second set when Ramos gave Williams a violation for receiving coaching while on the tennis court, which is considered illegal during a match. Williams denied she received any help from her coach. Later, Williams broke her tennis racket — by throwing it on the ground — out of frustration after losing a game to Osaka in the second set, making the score 3–2 in Williams’ favor. Ramos gave her a point penalty for this action.
Williams was confused by this penalty, thinking she would only receive a warning. However, Ramos revealed this action was the result his previous claim that she received coaching. Williams berated Ramos repeatedly, saying she would never cheat to win, and asked for an apology. At one point she called him a “thief” — claiming he was costing her the game. Ramos considered this verbal abuse and gave her a game penalty, which resulted in Osaka taking a 5–3 lead.
See more of the incident (specifically Williams’ verbal back-and-forth with Ramos) in the video below, starting at time 3:47:
Williams eventually lost the second set, making Osaka the Grand Slam Women’s Singles Champion.
Throughout her dispute with Ramos and during a media conference after the match, Williams claimed she faced discrimination due to her gender. At the media conference she specifically asserted, “I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things, and I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff. And for me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark.”
Williams’ feelings have been supported by others. For example, columnist for The Washington Post Sally Jenkins wrote that Ramos penalized Williams “all because he couldn’t take a woman speaking sharply to him.” Weekend Editor for Teen Vogue De Elizabeth also wrote a piece entitled “Serena Williams Had to Address Sexism in Tennis — Again.” Moreover, former World No. 1 professional tennis player Billie Jean King defended Williams on Twitter saying, “When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ & and there are no repercussions.”
Despite the many claims of sexism, however, it should be noted that Ramos has a history of making less than favorable calls against several star tennis players. Others such as Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, and Williams’ sister Venus Williams have all complained in the past for receiving what they felt were questionable code violations from Ramos. Moreover, Williams’ insinuation that the chair umpire would not penalize a man for talking back to him is seemingly untrue since during the 2016 Olympics he gave Murray a code violation after Murray called his umpiring “stupid.”
There is, however, another part of Williams’ dilemma that arguably deserves attention. Could race have been factor in Ramos’ decision making?
As farfetched as it might seem to imply racial bias here, one must consider what the tennis star said when her issues with Ramos began during the match. After Williams received her second violation — to which she was unaware — for breaking her tennis racket, she and the chair umpire discussed the matter. As Williams walked over to Ramos she said, “This is unbelievable. Every time I play here I have problems.” This statement hearkens back to past matches Williams has played in where she’s had issues with officiating.
For example, during the 2009 US Open Williams was penalized for arguing with a female line judge over a call. The line judge decided to tell the chair umpire of that match about Williams’ behavior. Williams followed her to assess the situation and could be heard saying, “Are you scared cause’ I shouted [the audio is unclear] at you? I’m sorry, but there’s a lot of people who’ve said way worse.” After hearing the line judge’s complaint to the chair umpire, as well as two referees, the tennis star interjected, “I didn’t say I’d kill you! Are you serious?!” The line judge’s claim cost Williams that match.
In 2004 the US Tennis Association apologized to Williams after chair umpire Mariana Alves’ poorly called third set resulted in her losing to Jennifer Capriati during a US Open Women’s Quarterfinals match.
Each case mentioned shows Williams receiving questionable treatment. A common theme, as was the case with Ramos, is that the officials of each match let their feelings about the tennis star get in the way of calling a fair game. One can highlight racial bias in these matters — but not prove causality — since Williams has endured a career of ostracism and racial discrimination, most specifically because she is a Black woman.
Over the years, Williams has been subject to racist criticism from both tennis fans and major tennis officials. For example, in 2001 she and her sister Venus were booed by a tennis crowed who claimed the two partook in match fixing, which was followed by some crowd members hurling racial epithets at the Williams’ family. In 2013, reporter Stephen Rodrick likened her physique to a monster truck “that crushes Volkswagens at sports arenas” in a Rolling Stone piece, and said fellow tennis star Maria Sharapova would receive more money in endorsements because she “is tall, white and blond.” Williams has also accused major tennis organizations of drug testing her more than any other female tennis player. Oddly enough, Sharapova tested positive for using a banned substance in 2016.
This year, Williams faced what many considered racial discrimination by the French Tennis Federation, who banned her from sporting her catsuit — which she previously wore for health reasons — at future French Open tournaments. Their reasoning was that “One must respect the game and the place.” It should be noted that Williams has a curvier figure, which is often associated with Black women. Fans of the tennis star claimed she was being unfairly targeted for having such a physique.
Given Williams’ history of dealing with racism, one can argue that her most recent bout with Ramos could somehow be related. Regarding the 2004 US Open match, one must ask if racial bias fueled by both tennis fans and popular news media factored into Alves’, who is Portuguese, decision making. As for the 2009 incident, it shares one major commonality with Saturday’s match: The tennis star’s attitude was called into question.
It is here that a well-known racial stereotype is worth mentioning — the “angry Black woman.” According to Ashley (2014), Black women that show anger or discontent are considered unattractive, unladylike, and unacceptable. The angry Black woman stereotype can greatly affect “how Black women are understood, engaged, and treated” (Ashley, 2014, p. 31). When the line judge, who is of Asian descent, accused Williams of threatening to kill her, one can argue that this was the result of stereotyping. Furthermore, Ramos’ decision to give Serena a game penalty, citing verbal abuse, could have also occurred due to the angry Black woman stereotype.
Further evidence supporting this racial stereotyping claim comes from co-hosts Mike Golic and Trey Wingo from ESPN’s Golic and Wingo. When speaking on the incident between Williams and Ramos, they believed both were to blame for not diffusing the situation. However, Wingo asserted, to which Golic agreed, “So, my issue is just because he could have [given Williams a game penalty] doesn’t mean he should have. Yes, by the letter of the law you could do this, 1, 2, 3. But to me, her indiscretion, her aggression was not nearly egregious enough, in my opinion, to allow him to take away a game.” Did Ramos, who is Portuguese, view Williams’ behavior as inappropriate for a Black woman, thus penalizing her?
This question becomes more salient when highlighting the thoughts of Novak Djokovic, winner of the Men’s 2018 Grand Slam final. When asked by a British journalist about his opinion on the matter he responded, “I have my personal opinion that maybe the chair umpire should not have pushed Serena to the limit, especially in a Grand Slam final.” According to Jones and Norwood (2017), Black women may experience backlash if they are too hard, passionate, or animated during certain interactions. One must ask if Ramos’ actions towards Williams’ were the result of her passion to win the game?
Though Williams has already solidified herself in tennis history, she continues to face many trials and tribulations both on and off the court. Her recent bout with Ramos was the latest in what seems to be ongoing mistreatment within the tennis world. Days after Saturday’s US Open match, Australian cartoonist for the Herald Sun Mark Knight published a racist cartoon of Williams with exaggerated features, reminiscent of Jim Crow Era images depicting Black individuals. The cartoon shows Williams throwing a fit and jumping on a tennis racket, while a White woman with blonde hair is seen in the background speaking with a chair umpire. It should be noted that Williams’ opponent Osaka is of mixed Haitian and Japanese descent. Therefore, it is safe to assume that Knight’s cartoon has a racist undertone. Thus, it seems despite the Williams’ wide notoriety and prolific history of winning, she cannot escape constant racial discrimination.
Ashley, W. (2014). The angry black woman: The impact of pejorative stereotypes on psychotherapy with black women. Social work in public health, 29(1), 27–34.
Jones, T., & Norwood, K. J. (2016). Aggressive encounters & white fragility: Deconstructing the trope of the angry black woman. Iowa L. Rev., 102, 2017.