Williams Incident Embarrassing – For Her And Tennis

Tennis embarrassed itself yet again, John Feinstein wrote, and that doesn't figure to change anytime soon

John Feinstein
September 11, 2018 - 5:34 pm

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Tennis rarely makes headlines in the United States anymore. Oh sure, people notice Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, but it has become little more than a niche sport—much like soccer and hockey. It has a cadre of intensely loyal fans who get extremely upset when you say the sport doesn’t matter to most people, but that’s about it.
         
Quick, who is playing in the Davis Cup semifinals this weekend? That’s right, they are this weekend and the United States is playing Croatia. Outside of the tennis geeks, does anyone know or care? Maybe if the U.S. goes on to win the Cup for the first time since 2007, a few people will notice.
         
I bring this up in the wake of Saturday’s disastrous U.S. Open women’s final between Naomi Osaka—who, by the way is a great story—and Serena Williams.
         
Williams may be the one player in tennis who transcends the sport’s niche status. That’s no knock on Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who might be the three greatest men’s players in history, but they simply don’t have the glamour or the back story that Williams does.
         
That’s why the U.S. Tennis Association proudly put out a list of the celebrities who were planning to attend the women’s final. I’m guessing none were there to see Osaka.
         
But then, instead of being a coronation for Williams as she tied Margaret Court’s record of 24 major titles, it became a huge embarrassment for the sport and, as always, the sport’s leadership could not have handled it worse.
         
There’s no sense going into too much detail all over again but here’s a synopsis: Osaka, who is 20 and is now the first Japanese player to win a major championship, played brilliantly throughout. She won the first set easily and was leading in the second set when chair umpire Carlos Ramos caught Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglu sending hand signals to his player. This is hardly uncommon in tennis and it is called selectively. Usually an umpire will only call it when it is blatant.
         
But those who acted in the aftermath as if it is NEVER called were just flat out wrong. In the three Grand Slam tournaments prior to this year’s U.S. Open—according to statistics provided by the International Tennis Federation—there had been 20 code violations for coaching called—11 on the women’s side, nine on the men’s. For the record, men had been called for a total of 59 code violations; the women for 31.
         
The issue of coaching has been around forever in tennis. In 1991—which according to my math is TWENTY-SEVEN years ago—I wrote about it in my book, “Hard Courts.”
         
In Davis Cup and Fed Cup, the captains sit courtside and coach their players on every changeover. Why is that okay, but coaching from the stands isn’t okay the rest of the year?
         
Tennis is the only sport where players can’t be coached while competing. What about golf you ask? Caddies are coaches; constantly talking their players up or down; suggesting what club to hit; reading putts.
         
The only drawback to allowing coaching in tennis would be if players dawdled between points to receive signals. That’s easily fixable—especially now that the sport has a clock right on the court. If you hold up play getting a signal, you get warned. Second time, code violation. And so on.
         
And yet, because tennis is almost comically mismanaged, no one has gotten around to making that simple fix. On Saturday, it led to a debacle.
         
Not longer after the coaching warning, Williams smashed a racquet. No debate there. The violation’s automatic—the umpire has no discretion. Since she’d been warned for coaching, Williams was docked a point.
         
Soon after that, things got out of control, Williams yelling and pointing at Ramos, demanding an apology and calling him both a thief and a liar.
         
I don’t know about you, but someone calls me a thief and a liar, I might overreact. Ramos did, docking Williams a game. What he should have done was turned his microphone off and said quietly, “Ms. Williams, that’s enough. Please stop. Let’s not make this worse than it already is. I don’t want to penalize you again. Let’s play.”
         
If at that point Williams kept ranting, he would have had no choice. My guess is she would have stopped. But we’ll never know; Ramos called the violation for verbal abuse and Williams lost a game. Soon after, Osaka, an innocent bystander in the whole thing, won the match.
         
The good news is that Williams found her composure post-match. She asked the crowd—which behaved horribly because their hero had lost and because of the ugly scene that had unfolded—to quit booing. She consoled Osaka, who was so upset by the whole thing she couldn’t stop crying.
         
None of that stopped the screaming that erupted afterwards. Williams claimed and was immediately backed up by many that Ramos had penalized her because she was a woman; that if she’d behaved exactly the same way and was a man it wouldn’t have happened.
         
Let me say this carefully: Are their double-standards applied to men and women in sports? Absolutely. Has Williams been victimized by them during her career? No doubt.
         
But the notion that men are never penalized is ridiculous. During the Olympics two years ago, Andy Murray was penalized by—you guessed it—Ramos for calling him stupid. He later claimed he had said, "Stupid umpiring," as if that made any difference. Rafael Nadal, who has probably been warned for coaching more than any player on earth, was called for delay during a match last year—by Ramos—and screamed at him that he’d never work one of his matches again.
         
There was also a lot of yammering post-match about how much John McEnroe got away with in the old days, that he was allowed to get away with profanity repeatedly. Actually, that’s not true. There’s no doubt McEnroe pushed the envelope all the time, but he almost never used profanity. Until 1990, the worst thing he’d ever been accused of on court was calling an umpire, “the pits of the world.”
         
He often pointed out to me that it bothered him no end that Jimmy Connors had become the grand old man of tennis when Connors was frequently profane—both in word and deed—on court. His father once said to me, “Jimmy makes John look like Little Lord Fauntleroy.”
         
In 1990, I was in Australia working on “Hard Courts.” McEnroe had looked brilliant for three rounds but found himself in a tough fourth round match with a very good player, Mikael Pernfors. In the third set he began acting up. The umpire, Gerry Armstrong, had plenty of McEnroe experience and kept his cool. But when John smashed a racquet the code violation was automatic. He tried to talk his way out of it, claiming he could still play with the racquet and then demanded to see Ken Farrar, the officiating supervisor.
         
Out came Farrar—also a man with lots of McEnroe experience. McEnroe made his case, Farrar rejected it and started to walk off court. For some reason, John lost it. I was no more than 15 feet away from him when he very clearly said, “Just go f--- your mother!”
         
Farrar heard it too. “When John said that, it was automatic,” he said later. “It was gross verbal abuse.”
         
Farrar walked back to the chair and said to Armstrong. “You heard that?” Armstrong nodded. Farrar then said, “Disqualify him.”
         
And that was it. McEnroe got away with nothing.
         
The voice of reason in the aftermath of the Williams incident was Martina Navratilova, who wrote an op-ed in the New York Times saying that, yes, there are double standards for men and women, but rather than let the women behave as badly as the men, tennis should demand that they ALL behave better.
         
Which, of course it should.
         
But tennis has no leadership. It is a mess of alphabet organizations: the ITF runs the four Grand Slams but each of them has their own governance. There’s also the Women’s Tennis Association and the ATP Tour, which run the non-Slams. Everyone argues over who has authority over what and rarely does anything get done.
         
Which is why the post-match reaction from the so-called authority figures was predictable.
         
Katrina Adams, the president of the U.S. Tennis Association—a former player—released a ludicrous statement that was nothing more than a paean to Williams. It began, “what Serena did on the podium today showed a great deal of class and sportsmanship.” She went on—and on—about what an inspiration Williams had been through the years. All true—but it had nothing to do with what had happened or the issue of coaching.
         
The head of the WTA issued a statement attacking Ramos. The ITF issued a statement defending Ramos.
         
No wonder the sport is constantly in chaos.
         
No one handled this well—except for Osaka. Williams claimed she never saw Moratoglu coaching her. Doesn’t matter. Like a caddie in golf, a player is responsible for the actions of his or her coach. Her outrage: “I would never cheat, I would rather lose than cheat,” rings hollow, since clearly—like most players—she’s been coached in the past.
         
Ramos lost his temper too, which an umpire should never do. Part of sitting up in the chair is knowing you may get called names and trying to get things under control without having to change the flow of the match. He failed to do that.
         
Is there a double standard? Do men get away with things women don’t? No doubt. But let’s not make this into Williams trying to stand up for women’s rights. She was getting her butt kicked and lost her temper. Period.
         
Finally, this ALL comes back to tennis’s lack of leadership—as reflected in the reactions of the USTA; the WTA and the ITF. Coaching needs to be legalized and all the alphabet groups need to have ONE commissioner who speaks with ONE voice.
         
Of course that’ll never happen. And so, the sport will continue to embarrass itself. Over and over again.
 
 
John Feinstein’s new book is, “The Prodigy,” a novel about a 17-year-old who has a chance to win the Masters and faces almost unbearable pressure from those around him because of his remarkable talent. It was published last week. His next non-fiction book, “Quarterback,”—about life as an NFL quarterback—will be published in November.