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Gary White A ruling on disorder in the court

October 12, 2018

Last month, 20-year-old Naomi Osaka earned a 6-2, 6-4 straight sets victory over 36-year-old Serena Williams in the U.S. Open Women’s Tennis final. Osaka dominated Serena and looked like a nascent superstar. The neophyte served more aces than the veteran, made fewer unforced errors, and repeatedly broke her childhood idol’s serve. Osaka moved swiftly, hit powerful ground strokes, and was the mentally tougher player. She was fearless against the reigning Queen of Women’s Tennis and showed no sign of jitters.

Serena, on the other hand, was the personification of Mt. Vesuvius spewing her anger like molten lava. Her volcanic eruptions began early in the second set after she received a warning from chair umpire Carlos Ramos. Ramos warned Serena because her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, was illegally giving her off-court instructions. Serena vehemently denied the charge and said she preferred to lose rather than cheat. The irony of her protest is that Mouratoglou admitted to coaching Serena.

Though she was only assessed a warning, Serena kept debating the issue. When play resumed, Serena performed better and looked like she might win the set. Osaka broke Serena’s serve and took control of the match.

Serena was so furious that she smashed her racket. Rules required Ramos to assess her a one-point penalty.

Serena’s anger intensified. She called Ramos a “liar” for saying she had been coached and a “thief” for docking her the point. Ramos reacted by penalizing Serena a game for verbal abuse. She complained her punishment was sexist. She argued that men had used worse language and not been similarly punished.

The “G.O.A.T.” screamed she would never cheat because she is a mother and is fighting for women’s rights. These assertions proved unpersuasive to Ramos, effectively ending any hopes Serena had of salvaging the match.

Serena appeared to be fading into tennis oblivion. She seemed bound to suffer the same fate as Joe Louis in 1951 when he tried to regain the heavyweight boxing title but was destroyed by his younger opponent, Rocky Marciano. Marciano cried and apologized after knocking out Louis, who was his boyhood idol. Osaka wept at the post-match awards ceremony and apologized for “knocking out” her childhood heroine.

Serena failed to understand her transgression was not excusable just because some men committed similar offenses and were not sanctioned the same way. There is no good reason to believe true gender equality means a woman has the right to be as obnoxious as a man. Serena missed an opportunity to show a woman could behave better than a man under tough circumstances.

Any penalties Ramos may have imposed on a male had no bearing on Serena’s match with Osaka. Serena’s crusade for women’s rights was nothing more than an excuse designed to help her avoid admitting she was being crushed by Osaka. Serena had no right to expect the umpire to do anything other than enforce the “letter of the law,” and she did not deserve absolution based on her prior accomplishments.

It is tempting to say Ramos should have ignored the Serena tantrum. She has arguably earned the right to vent, especially in light of the racist epithets, sexist limitations, and other ill treatment she has endured. In addition, many would say the fans did not want an official to decide the champion. They wanted the athletes to determine the outcome.

These arguments ultimately fail because the rules of tennis are in place to ensure fair competition, exalt the sport, and produce excitement for spectators. The court is not the proper venue to advance polemics about sexism, racism, xenophobia, or any of the myriad of social ills. Even if one strongly believes an athlete is justified in using sports as a platform to address societal problems, it is quite clear Serena was just ranting about sexism as an excuse to divert attention from the beat-down she was getting from Osaka.

It is a shame Serena failed to show grace under pressure. She stole the spotlight from a tennis phenom who should have been allowed to bask in the glow of public adulation. Serena cast a large shadow over Osaka’s first Grand Slam title and managed to make the event more about her loss rather than Osaka’s win.

The dethroned tennis diva deserves a lot of credit for telling the crowd to quit jeering during the awards ceremony and for congratulating Osaka, but those actions do not eliminate the stain of her demeanor during the match.

Serena is among the best athletes this country has produced, but she diminished her lofty status with such behavior. She should stop making excuses and act like the bonafide champion she is, whether she wins or loses.

Gary White is a Stamford Superior Court judge and has been a USA/Connecticut Amateur Boxing Official for more than 14 years

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