Serena Should Have Been Cut Some Slack

The women’s final of the U.S. Open tennis tournament this past Saturday in New York was set to be historic. Serena Williams was going for her record-tying 24th championship in a Grand Slam tournament and her first since childbirth. Naomi Oaska, 20-years-old from Japan, was aiming to win her first title on a stage of this magnitude. Osaka won, but all the post-tournament talk is about Serena and the overreaction to her on-court actions.

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A brief summary of what happened—Serena was issued a warning for a coaching violation. Tennis players are prohibited by rule from receiving signals from their coach during a match. She disputed the violation and things went downhill from there. At one point she bounced her racket on the court, something that is penalized in tennis and it cost her a point. Finally, things boiled over, she got in a shouting match with umpire Carlos Ramos and called him a “thief” for taking the point from her. He penalized her an entire game and it was time for the fallout to begin.

Serena has been fined $17.000 for her action. Ramos is under fire for alleged sexism, as Serena and others have said male players have gotten away with worse conduct and not been penalized. Whatever his motivations, I believe Ramos drastically overreacted and further believe that tennis could make some rules changes that would prevent an umpire from being in this situation.

I was watching the highlights of the match after hearing the reports of Serena’s outburst and my instinctive reaction was “That’s it?”. A code violation for coaching that, by all accounts, is universally violated and pounding a racket to the ground in frustration? That instigates substantive penalties in the championship round of a Grand Slam tournament?

I’ll admit to being at something of a disadvantage in a discussion like this. I follow tennis, but on a Saturday in September, college football is going to draw my attention with baseball a close second, so I don’t understand the nuances of tennis etiquette. But as one who came of age watching Billy Martin and Earl Weaver work the umpires in baseball or Bob Knight let the officials have it in basketball, Serena’s racket slam didn’t even register with me. It was a championship battle, she was intense and emotions run high in these spots. It seems to me that Ramos could have cut her a little slack.

Furthermore, this code on coaching that tennis has reminds me of the silly rules the NFL has about stealing an opponent’s signals, the ones that created an uproar over the New England Patriots in 2007. Why are these rules necessary? If a tennis coach can communicate something to a player with a simple hand gesture that doesn’t slow down the game, what’s the problem? Subsequent reaction has confirmed my instincts—that this is a universally violated rule. If Ramos felt that strongly about it, a warning would have been more appropriate.

To me then, there are three takeaways from all this…

*Get rid of the restriction on coaching, with the caveat that it cannot slow the pace of the game from any reason (I dread any sport having to deal with their own equivalent of the constant mound visits that have become a such a drag on major league baseball). In fairness to Ramos, rules that no one enforces put umpires in a bad situation. It’s hard enough to decide if there is a rule violation, but this sort of unwritten rules then force the umpire to make a second decision—was the violation really bad enough to warrant substantive penalties?

*Look, I’ve been an umpire in baseball and even at the Little League level, I couldn’t stand it, with the constant drumbeat of criticism. I hate to go after umpires and I won’t be a part of the current drummed-up outrage over what his motivations might have been. But is it asking too much that umpires work exceptionally hard to not be noticed? It really seems to me this could have been avoided.

*It’s highly unlikely that any of this decided the final results of the match. Serena had already lost the first match and while she was still very much alive in this one, the penalties don’t explain why Osaka was able to win 6-2 and 6-4. If you want to argue the penalties took some momentum away from Serena and cost her a chance to comeback, that’s fair. But Osaka was a worthy champion in her own right.