Unless you’re a serious tennis fan, you probably don’t know that exactly one player was expelled from the 2017 U.S. Open: Fabio Fognini, for calling a chair umpire a “whore” and worse in Italian during a losing match. He was also fined $96,000 and threatened with banishment from Grand Slam events if he didn’t quit acting like a punk on the court.
Chastened and apologetic, Fognini returned to Flushing Meadows in 2018 as a No. 14 seed, where he was upset in the third round with no histrionics. Evidently, he’s learned to accept defeat.
So it’s simply not true, as Serena Williams asserted during her tearful histrionics after losing to brilliant, 20-year-old Naomi Osaka — also a “woman of color” for those of you keeping score at home — that men are never punished for bad behavior in professional tennis. It happens frequently, although these days the (mostly European) top male players generally behave like adults. Nobody defended Fognini.
So spare me the John McEnroe videos. That was 30 years ago, and McEnroe’s grown up in the interval, although it often seemed he never would. McEnroe himself paid multiple bad conduct fines, but was disqualified only once, from the 1990 Australian Open.
A very great player, Serena Williams has had several memorable meltdowns at the Open. The worst was in 2009, when she loomed over a diminutive line judge shouting “I swear to God I’ll take the f—king ball and shove it down your f—king throat.” Game, set and match to Belgium’s Kim Clijsters, who coincidentally went on to become the first mother ever to win the Open.
Afterward, Serena said the line judge was foolish to fear her, as she’s never been a violent person.
So no, I’m not buying Serena’s 2018 melodrama, and neither should anybody else. Half-drunk, boorish U.S. Open crowds are bad enough. But an experienced world-class athlete like her deliberately provoking the crowd was a shameful display of poor sportsmanship.
The kid was beating her; Serena couldn’t take it.
Should chair umpire Carlos Ramos, a notorious stickler for the rules, have ignored her coach’s obvious hand signals? Serena later claimed she never saw them. But ESPN close-ups showed her repeatedly looking in his direction, probably what drew Ramos’ attention in the first place.
As he later admitted, Coach Patrick Mouratoglou was definitely signaling her to get to the net — and Serena was doing it, with some success. He alibied that everybody does it. But it’s definitely against the rules.
No penalty, just a warning. Nevertheless, Serena lost it, heatedly denying she’d ever cheated — which neither Ramos nor anybody else said she did. After she kept going on about it, Ramos said, “I know that.”
After missing a backhand and losing her next service game, however — a critical point in the match — Serena smashed her racquet to bits on the court. Ramos assessed her a point penalty. He really had no choice.
The score was now 2-3 with Osaka serving. Four games had been played since the initial warning, but Williams wouldn’t let it go. “You owe me an apology,” she said to Ramos, loudly enough for the crowd to hear. “I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her.”
The nationalistic crowd began to boo. Osaka held serve, 3-3. Then she broke Serena’s serve to go ahead 4-3 and Williams completely lost it. On the changeover, she stood up and pointed in Ramos’s face, repeatedly demanding that the umpire apologize for something he’d never said.
Ramos wasn’t beating her; Osaka was.
“How dare you insinuate that I was cheating,” she said loudly. “And you stole a point from me; you’re a thief, too.”
Ramos had enough. He assessed a third code violation for verbal abuse: an automatic game penalty, 5-3. Serena called for the tournament referee, leading to a lengthy, confusing delay while the jeers rained down.
Should Ramos have given her one last warning, as Chris Evert thought? Maybe so. On the other hand, unlike her opponent, Williams is a 36-year-old tour veteran. She’s supposed to know the rules. Also, however, like a lot of tennis professionals, a pampered childhood prodigy who travels the world in a celebrity bubble: surrounded by flunkies, protected by money, and tempted to self-dramatize.
Serena didn’t blurt out an angry expletive; she made an hourlong spectacle of it. Amid the avalanche of commentary, I thought the great Martina Navratilova — who certainly understands “feeling like an outsider in the game of tennis” — put it best.
“I think the question we have to ask ourselves is this: What is the right way to behave to honor our sport and to respect our opponents?”
Naomi Osaka accepted the U.S. Open trophy with tears running down her face as the crowd shamefully booed her. Serena owes her big apology.
I’m guessing she’ll never get one.