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When winners lose it

As the first Japanese—and Haitian, too—to win the US Open, one of tennis’ four Grand Slams, Naomi Osaka is something more than a winner:  she is a role model.  The sport has seen a lot of champions, and sure, their exploits have inspired countless young people to pick up a racquet and emulate their idols.  Naomi is a little different:  she is half-Japanese, and so her exploits in New York not only excite Japan, her mother’s homeland, but on a macro scale, all Asians. And we haven’t even begun discussing her possible impact on Haiti, the land of her father, that Pearl of the Antilles that has more than met its quota of tragedies, whose people could use a bit of feel-good news.  Minorities are decidedly a minority in tennis, along with golf perhaps the whitest of all sports, such that when she climbed the winner’s podium, not only was she a breath of fresh air in a sport long dominated by the Williams sisters, she opened doors for a new generation of tennis players.

Which is why I felt so happy for her when she won in straight sets, 6-2, 6-4, over Serena Williams, but the way the match unfolded ruined what should have been Naomi’s moment of triumph.  The women’s finals of the 2018 US Open will forever be marred by Williams’ tirade against Carlos Ramos, the chair umpire officiating the match, who had imposed three penalties against Williams during the pivotal second set. First, Ramos gave her a first warning for coaching, which is prohibited in Grand Slam tournaments and which Serena’s coach Patrick Mouratoglou admitted to doing. Apparently, the implication of cheating did not sit well with Serena and she stewed about it, so much so that, after losing a game, she smashed her racket on the ground, a second code violation which under the rules calls for a point penalty. She then started arguing against Ramos and called him “a thief,” which earned Serena a game penalty. At that point, the crowd began booing, and they did not stop when Naomi stepped up to claim her trophy, which she had earned fair and square anyway, and the winner’s check. What should have been the happiest moment in a professional athlete’s life had degenerated into a debacle.

What overarches Serena’s meltdown, what differentiates it from tantrums thrown by other professional tennis players, is the theme of sexism. Serena says that her male peers had said worse things than she had, cursed at judges and bellowed at them, yet generally are given a pass by coaches. There exists, Serena charges, a double standard in the application of the rules; in disciplining her, Serena implies that Ramos, and the sport by extension, is sexist. Adding insult to discrimination, she was fined $17,000 by the US Open organizers.

Earlier in the tournament, a kerfuffle ensued when Alize Cornet, a French tennis player, was issued a warning, with no penalty or fine, after she removed her shirt on-court when she realized she had put it on backward. Male players change their shirts all the time in between games with no controversy, but when a female player does the same act, it’s a code violation apparently. Again, the US Open organizers had to deal with accusations of sexism. Cornet’s experience oddly echoes that of Brandi Chastain. In 1999, after scoring the penalty that won the United States women’s soccer team the World Cup, Chastain, clearly feeling celebratory, ripped off her jersey, baring to the world her black sports bra. The image of her kneeling on the pitch in her bra landed her on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  Male footballers celebrate shirtless, too, but they do not get the criticism that Chastain did.

To be charitable, Chastain’s baring bears no comparison to Janet Jackson’s “Nipplegate” during the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show.  It’s the breasts, I think. Their unclothed presence makes some people uncomfortable, in the way breastfeeding in public makes some people uncomfortable. But is that sexism or just plain prudery? Note that there are women who get offended by public breast-baring, too, so what does that make them?

Are there double standards in the application of rules in professional tennis? Probably, although news reports do state that a study conducted by a London newspaper covering 20 years of fines imposed at Grand Slam events show otherwise. The study showed that three times more men—1,534—than women—526—were fined for code violations at the Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows. Those figures seem to belie Serena’s claims.  Gender equality, however, has been making inroads into the sport, most conspicuously with prize money. For decades, women earned less than the men, but today, in the majors at least, singles champions, regardless of gender, receive equal purses.

What I have yet to figure out, though, is whether sexism automatically exists just because a male chair umpire penalizes a female tennis player. What if the female player really did commit a code violation; so does she get a free pass automatically? Serena is perhaps not the best person to complain of any –isms. This is the woman, after all, who, during the 2009 semi-finals against Kim Clijsters, threatened to shove a “f****g” ball down a lineswoman’s “f*****g” throat after a disputed line call.

The lineswoman was of Asian descent, so does that make Serena a racist? G

 

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