Freeman: Credit Where Credit Is Due

An unfortunate and avoidable blemish is stuck on a rising star's moment.

by Jillian Freeman | 9/13/18 2:25am

 At the start of a post-match interview with ESPN after the U.S. Open women’s tennis final, ESPN host Chris McKendry began the conversation with new champion Naomi Osaka by saying, “You can hear everybody’s cheers for you. That was a victory you earned,” her tone filled with reassurance and comfort. It was a strange opening to an interview with the newest Grand Slam winner, who one would think at that moment knows her ability the most. Unfortunately for Osaka, this final match was different.

Naomi Osaka is a 20-year old Japanese-Haitian-American professional tennis player. She is also the first tennis player representing Japan to win a Grand Slam singles tournament, and she did this by beating her lifelong idol and tennis legend, Serena Williams. Unfortunately, the brilliant talent that earned her the win was overshadowed by the controversy surrounding violations given to Williams throughout the match.

The first penalty given to Williams sparked a chain reaction that distracted the audience from appreciating Osaka’s well-deserved win. Instead, the circumstances Williams faced were shaped as an illustration of the fallouts of sexism within the greater tennis community. This came not without recent strife after a violation was given to French player Alize Cornet earlier in the tournament. Cornet had briefly taken her shirt off because it was on backwards, and was penalized for “unsportsmanlike conduct.” In comparison, during the semifinal match between John Millman and Novak Djokovic, Djokovic relaxed shirtless on his bench during a ten minute heat break with no repercussions.

In Williams’ case however, the official’s calls were completely justified, even if some deem them nit-picky in nature. Williams was first reprimanded for a coaching penalty. The International Tennis Federation rules state: “Players shall not receive coaching during a match...Communications of any kind, audible or visible, between a player and coach may be construed as coaching.” What made this call so controversial is that coaching is ubiquitous in the tennis world. Coaches signal to their players from the sideline between every point, and Williams’ coach even confirmed the allegation after the match. Despite the prevalence of coaching, the umpire has the right to make this call. It didn’t cost Williams anything but her first warning. She shouldn’t have had a problem being cautious of mistakes after that.

After the call, Williams chose to defend her integrity by demanding an apology from the official. Considering she thought the call stained her honest reputation, her decision to denounce it was understandable, but the call was actually on Williams coach for making hand signals. It didn’t assume Williams saw or used them. Furthermore, like every other professional athlete that disagrees with a referee, she should’ve moved past the call and regained focus. She did not.

The second violation was completely avoidable and, frankly, disgraceful: Williams, after losing a game to put the second set in Osaka’s favor, threw her racket to the ground in an unprofessional and immature manner. This gave Osaka a point with which to begin the next set, though the young underdog didn’t even need it. She quickly sealed the set in three short rallies. Yet somehow, according to Williams, that game had been taken from her by the official. This is false. The game was taken from her, but by Naomi Osaka. Williams then, with a defeatist attitude, proceeded to call the official a “thief”, referring to the set that Osaka had just crushed. This remark, marking her third penalty, cost her an entire game.

The tantrum that ensued tainted the amazing match Osaka was playing. The audience, media, and anyone who tuned in amid the chaos were now under the impression that Williams was losing because of sexist officiating. Looking at the facts, this is simply not the case. Naomi Osaka was dominating the entire match and deserves complete credit for the victory. Her moment should not have been clouded and politicized because a professional athlete, however upstanding for women’s rights, could not keep her composure. Looking at the official in question, Carlos Ramos, and his record in Grand Slam finals, he was similarly strict in calls with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic at the French Open in 2017 and Wimbledon in 2018. The decisions by his superiors not only to stand by his calls but also to fine Williams for her behavior further back this conclusion. Yes, there are men who have said worse to officials and had not been penalized; however, this specific official’s reputation shows that he has been consistently strict with both male and female players.

Episodes like Cornet’s shirt violation compared to Djokovic’s ability to bask shirtless on his bench show that inequality obviously exists in the tennis community. However, Williams was wrong to claim that the calls made against her during this match were rooted in sexism. Williams’ behavior was immature and unprofessional, and warranted the calls she received regardless of her gender.

During the trophy ceremony, Williams tried to neutralize the situation for Osaka’s sake by comforting her and asking the crowd to stop booing. But there was no “this girl deserved to win” from Williams; a simple “she played well” would do. Osaka hid her face under her hat, visibly upset and embarrassed in what should have been her proudest moment. Naomi Osaka felt responsible for the audience’s frustration, she even apologized for winning the championship. She should have left that court with no remorse, but the spotlight was on Serena Williams and the false narrative that double-standards and sexism stole her comeback victory. The truth is, a nit-picky official decided to make strict calls in a big game, and Serena Williams could not keep her composure. Naomi Osaka is a rising star who already claims a string of victories against number-one players, she has beaten Serena Williams for the second time, and she undoubtedly deserves the U.S. Open champion title that she now possesses.