It was the perfect storm. Serena Williams, the best female athlete of our era and arguably the best of any era. A fiery competitor whose amazing athleticism and personal courage have risen above injustices fueled by sexism and racism again and again.
Naomi Osaka, a 20-year-old who had never been in a Grand Slam final before, never experienced the fishbowl of center court in the most-watched women’s tennis event in the country, now facing the daunting challenge of defeating the woman she has admired since childhood to claim the most coveted prize in American tennis.
Carlos Ramos, a “gold badge” official with two decades of experience in the chair … and a reputation for punctilious adherence to the rules. Ramos plays it strictly by the book, as many of the greatest names in tennis have learned to their chagrin.
In short, Ramos is a purist who believes rules level the playing field and elevate the game. He prides himself on being firm but fair. Williams is an idealistic fighter who has had a snootful of living by rules that are either unevenly applied or dismiss her entirely as too female, too black, too heavy, or too emotional.
Osaka? An awestruck neophyte, it appeared. As one tennis buff said when he saw Ramos assume the chair for a championship match that included Serena Williams and Osaka, “Oh [shoot]. This is going to be bad.”
It was. After a first set through which Serena sleep-walked while Osaka pummeled her with bullet serves and pinpoint placements, Serena was starting to make a showing when Ramos ruled that she was being coached from the stands. As is her wont, Serena was having none of it. Firmly but politely, she set him straight.
Or so she thought. It wasn’t until two games later, when she smashed her racket in a moment of frustration and was penalized a point for this second violation that she realized the coaching violation still stood. She was livid.
I like it that Serena made it clear to Ramos and the watching world that she doesn’t cheat, that she would rather lose than cheat. But Ramos wasn’t accusing her of cheating. He was accusing her coach of coaching, which Patrick Mouratoglou was indisputably doing.
It wasn’t Ramos who owed Serena an apology, as she kept insisting. It was Patrick. Patrick knew that coaching is against the rules, and he knew or should have known that Ramos plays by the rules, including the rule against coaching from the stands. After all, Ramos had warned Serena’s sister about the same thing just two years before!
Although Patrick later said that coaching from the stands is quietly handled, rather than treated as a violation, he knew or should have known that ain’t necessarily so.
In the three previous Grand Slams, 11 of the 31 code violations had been for coaching. If “everybody does it,” at least 11 somebodies (9 of them males) in the past three tournaments had been penalized for it. That makes it a big risk for a coach to take in a Grand Slam final.
Beyond that, in what adult world does the argument “everybody does it” fly?
No matter. The trigger had been pulled – on both the perennial purist and the perennially persecuted. Between games, Serena couldn’t let it go – demanding an apology, threatening to ban Ramos from the court, ordering him to talk now and to shut up then, calling him a liar and, finally, a thief. There’s a rule against impugning the honesty of an official. Ramos penalized her a game for this, her third infraction.
He might as well have set her hair on fire, which would have looked like a candle next to the bonfire now ablaze in the stands. Out came the tournament poobahs to be schooled by a weeping Williams about all that she had endured on this court over the years, to be reminded how many men call umpires far worse things than “thief” with impunity, and to be beseeched for justice.
Meanwhile, all hope of just playing good tennis lost, a bewildered Osaka cooled her heels off-screen, with good cause to wonder, “Ain’t I a woman?”
The bigwigs did nothing, play finally resumed, and the remarkably unfazed Osaka put Serena out of her misery in short order.
But the firestorm had just begun. Ever since, media and social media have been filled with outrage about the blatant sexism on display at the Open.
I’m not seeing it. Yes, Williams has endured a lot on and off the courts of tennis. But she was not mistreated on the court that day. Every call that Ramos made and every penalty he assessed was strictly by the rules.
Yes, other chair umpires might have given a “soft” warning on the coaching or turned the other cheek when she berated and badgered and finally met the rulebook definition of verbal abuse of an official. But Ramos is not that umpire.
He is the teacher who has to explain to the would-be valedictorian that her points just don’t add up to an A, and that, yes, other teachers give extra credit, but he doesn’t. He is the coach who has to tell the point guard that because he missed practice – even though his mother made him go to his piano lesson instead – he won’t be starting tonight.
Yes, tennis is lousy with men who have shown far more temper and said far worse things than one black woman did at the U.S. Open. But not on Ramos’s court.
Whether it’s yelling at a towel boy (Nick Kyrgios), just yelling (Novak Djokovic), taking too much time (Rafael Nadal, Djokovic), or receiving coaching from the stands (Venus Williams, Nadal), Ramos calls what he sees.
Ask Andy Murray. In 2016, Murray called Ramos a “stupid umpire” and got the same code violation Serena got for calling him a thief. Murray’s defense was that he had actually said “stupid umpiring” and therefore had not impugned Ramos’s character. (Ah, the fine lines of officiating tennis these days!) Yeah, Ramos is a stickler. But he’s an equal opportunity annoyer.
Sometime midway through the media firestorm, I got a hankering to re-read Richard Wilbur’s “A Game of Catch.” It’s a little gem of a short story that starts with a familiar old game but turns into a different game entirely. Take the 5 minutes needed to read it yourselves and when you’re done, ask yourself, “In the U.S. Open, who was Scho?”
I think it was Serena – and I tuned in to watch Serena win. But that’s the nice thing about teaching English. There’s always more than one right answer. And more than one good story.
Mary Sheehy Moe has served Great Falls as a school board trustee and state senator. She is now a city commissioner.