Saturday afternoon, I took in the Serena Williams versus Naomi Osaka match in a room full of casual tennis fans. The Grand Slam was, at first, just going on in the background during cocktail hour. Then came the courtside commotion between Williams and the chair umpire. Details of what was happening and what we had missed were googled in real time, the television was unmuted, all attentions turned. As the drama continued to mount, our party became glued to the screen.
By now, you’ve likely heard what happened. In case not: First, the umpire, Carlos Ramos, accused Williams of receiving coaching from the sidelines, a forbidden practice in the sport, and issued her a warning. “I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose,” the tennis star told him, clearly incensed by very idea, and adding that she is a role model for her young daughter.
“I know that,” you can hear him saying to her from his seat, before she walks away. It seems like the conflict is over. But then, minutes later, Williams missed a shot and throws her racket down at the ground in frustration, badly busting the frame.
“It was the look of someone who had hit a glass ceiling, who was sick and tired of being told it isn’t real.”
Ramos gave her another penalty for throwing her racket at the court in frustration, and Williams’ cool continued to melt. “You stole a point from me. You’re a thief, too,” she snapped at him. That’s when she received a third penalty, for verbal abuse; and, because she’d already received a warning, it meant she lost a whole game.
That’s when her fury broke through: Standing on the sidelines with US Open officials who came on the court during the imbroglio, Williams characterized the umpire’s series of penalties blatant sexism, and the fury is etched across her face. Even on television, you could see that she was holding back tears.
“Even on television, you could see that she was holding back tears.”
The tension was also rising in the room, where our gathering had started to take sides. Some were sympathetic to Williams, seeing not just the black and white rules of the sport but how realities like sexism, racism, and double standards can creep onto the court. Others criticized Williams for being unprofessional—as a tennis veteran, “she should more than know the rules,” one guest said—and observed that, fair or not, she had allowed her emotions to get the better of her. Her behavior was called a tantrum.
The implication, of course, was that somehow Williams was unable to manage her emotions—to get control over herself. But it was tennis legendBillie Jean King who quickly zeroed inon the innuendo that girded that line of criticism: “When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ and there are no repercussions.”
That’s not a tennis specific observation, of course. Particularly in male-dominated environments, women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Get angry and you’re a bitch, a nasty women. Let a tear fall and you’re weak, unable to handle pressure—to “take it like a man.” This double bind, baked into our culture, is an emotional policing system designed to keep women down. In other words: It’s patriarchal tool of control, whether wielded intentionally or subconsciously.
“This double bind, baked into our culture, is an emotional policing system designed to keep women down.”
To wit: While we could debate ad nauseum if Williams was out of line, what’s not debatable is that she was treated differently than male players have been in the past despite committing similar infractions. Tennis history is plagued with meltdowns and language far more foul than calling an umpire a thief, both mostly by men who did not receive as harsh of penalties as Williams did on Saturday. The athlete even made that point herself. “Do you know how many other men do things that are much worse than that?” Williamsasked.
Justa few examplesinclude Andy Murray kicking a tennis ball at an umpire’s head during the Cincinnati Masters tournament in 2016, Jimmy Connors yelling at umpire David Littlefield during the 1991 US Open—and at one point, calling him, confusingly, an “abortion,” and Andy Roddick swearing at the umpire, well as calling the officiating into question, during the 2010 US open.
If you want to familiarize yourself with these sorts of flare-ups, you canwith this 13-minute highlight reel. However, it bears mentioning that in those three examples, none of the men were penalized, despite behavior that was as fiery as Williams’ was.
“Hysteria” is a word with along, loaded legacy, that has its roots in the theory that a woman’s hormones can cause her to be erratic and inappropriate. In fact, up until 1952, “female hysteria” was a achronic, and common, medical condition among women, recognized by the American Psychiatric Association; historically, “hysterical” also served as a synonym for mental instability, another way to call a woman “crazy.”
“It took only days for a literal “angry black woman” caricature to surface.”
The overall effect—degrading a woman’s credibility by calling into question her sanity—has remained consistently infuriating, as has the pervasiveness of the “hysterical woman” stereotype. And for black women, wearing their emotions on their sleeves comes with another layer of cultural backlash; it took only days for a literal “angry black woman” caricature to surface, specifically in Australia’sHerald Sun.
Yet, to anyone willing to extend the empathy (or question the lens through which they watched this match between player and umpire) Williams’ response to the series of calls on the court seemed emotionally charged, absolutely…but also completely understandable. In those moments, she was a player with a lot riding on a major match,literally in terms of the cash prize, and figuratively in terms of her legacy and reputation.
Perhaps more importantly: She is also an athlete and a sporting legend who has risen to the top of her game against the odds—despite a society, and a sport, stacked against women in general and women of color in specific—and who has been doing battle against double standards, sexism, racism, and condescension her whole career.Of courseshe was furious.Of courseshe felt robbed and reacted to that feeling. Who, in her right mind, wouldn’t?
By the time the match ended, our party had drifted away from the TV and onto other topics of conversation. You could argue that she broke the rules. You could argue that she should have tried harder to check her feelings. Maybe you would be right. Still, this whole week, I haven’t been able to get that look on her face, when she was trying to stand up for herself, out of my mind. It was the look of someone who had hit a glass ceiling, who was sick and tired of being told it isn’t real.