Blog – Can Serena Williams use Gender Card everytime?

Serena Williams - US Open 2018

There’s been a fair amount of confused noises in the social media around the Serena Williams meltdown last week, and kinda predictably, lots of -isms being thrown around. For what it’s worth, here’s my opinion on the incident:
US Open 2018

Code of Conduct

Tennis has very clearly laid out player code of conduct and penalties. These penalties are designed to be escalating in nature, and many are automatic. So, the first violation (for Minor Offences like a racket bust, an audible obscenity etc.) is a warning from the umpire – no points deductions, but it is a clear shot across the bows. The next violation is a point penalty, the third and all subsequent violations incur a game penalty. After the third violation, an umpire in consultation with the tournament referee can default a player. Defaults can also happen even earlier, at any stage for what are considered ‘Major Offences’. All the players know this, and have played under the same rules from the time they were juniors.

Discretion of the Umpire 

For many offences, the umpire has zero discretion – so a racket bust is an automatic violation. A clear audible obscenity ditto. If a player whacks a ball and it hits a spectator or a linesman or umpire, it is automatic disqualification. Has happened in the past. Dennis Shapovalov was defaulted from his first Davis Cup match last year when he slammed a ball randomly and it hit the umpire. David Nalbandian at Queens kicked at an advertising hoarding, the spliters injured a linesman’s leg…automatic default. For other offences, the umpire may have some discretion.

Serena’s Behaviour Justified?

Serena’s first code violation was for on-court coaching. She told the umpire her coach only gave her ‘a thumbs up’ (which meant she saw it); her coach later confessed he was indeed coaching – asking her to push up to the net. Frankly, whether she saw it or not was immaterial – the umpire thought he’d spotted an offence, acted on it, turns out his suspicion was right. (BTW, she has previous on this. In a memorable incident at the Aus Open many years ago, Serena’s mother shouted at her ‘to get out of Melbourne’. Apparently Serena was standing too far back, right on the printed ‘Melbourne’ on the court. She moved up closer to the baseline and won the match.)

Her next code violation was for busting a racket. The point penalty was automatic. Umpire had no choice in the matter.

The next code violation was for abuse / disrespect of the umpire – calling him a liar / thief etc. and got her a game penalty. Here the umpire does have some discretion, he could have possibly chosen to warn her once more (off line) that one more abuse would invoke a third code violation. But in my experience, you don’t ever want to put yourself in the position that you are at the mercy of an umpire’s judgment. Especially an umpire you’ve been screaming at. The whole point of the escalating penalties is that once you’ve got a first warning for ANYTHING, you better clean up your act pronto. Plus, in this very tournament, we had an earlier instance where an umpire tried to use ‘soft-power’ to manage a situation (the Kyrgios match) rather than just stick to the letter of the law, and that didn’t work out so well, so this umpire may have decided not to go there.
US Open 2018 controversial moment


[especially stoked by Serena’s defences and I believe supported by Billie Jean King, Azarenka etc.]

1. ‘I’m a mother, I wouldn’t cheat’

Hello? Irrelevant. Don’t wave your fertility in my face, lady. Plenty mothers have won with loads of grace. Evonne Goolagong, Kim Clijsters (who benefited from Serena’s previous meltdown at the US)

2. ‘Everybody coaches, they should just allow it’

This is BJK’s statement. Firstly it is incorrect. Everybody does not get coaching. Seen Roger’s camp do hand signals? Ever seen Ivan Lendl in Murray’s box? The guy barely smiles after Murray won the match. I’d guess easily 50% players across both genders don’t receive any form of on-court coaching.

Tennis is a gladiatorial sport, where the 2 players are supposed to figure out stuff on their own. The WTA allows coaching in smaller tournaments, but it’s not allowed in the Slams. I’d argue they have diluted the sport by allowing it. But that’s neither here not there – that’s an opinion, and others might think the game benefits by having coaching.

The simple point is that it’s against the rules as of now, so it is a violation.

3. Osaka’s coach was also coaching.’ ‘You’ve reffed Rafa matches, Toni coaches every point.’ And the -ism variant here is Azarenka’s ‘This would never happen in the men’s game’

A ridiculous argument! Ever try telling a cop that others are speeding too? That ever worked? Maybe Osaka’s coach was coaching, maybe he wasn’t. The umpire saw Serena’s coach doing it and acted accordingly.

Rafa and Toni have received code violations both for coaching and for time-wasting, quite recently too. It’s not like they get a free pass. I’d argue that maybe the # of such instances should go up, if it has to. Ditto for Andy Murray’s 4 letter words – they should clamp down more severely on that.

None of these is relevant to Serena’s coach and the current offence under discussion.

As per the US Open, the # of code violations received THIS YEAR by men is more than that received by women. Fabio Fognini was defaulted from the tournament for similar escalating penalties, including abuse. So yes, it happens in the men’s game all right.

4. ‘Look at John McEnroe’s abuse, this is nothing even comparable.’

They did. Look at it. It was 35 years ago, and it was so bad, they set up this whole set of escalating rules to deal with it.  Then they used it to disqualify him from the Australian Open. It has worked so well that these are now exceptions, rather than the norm as they had become.

5. ‘I’m fighting against gender discrimination in tennis.’

No you aren’t. Not in this instance anyway.

There is gender discrimination in tennis, agree. For a more egregious example, look at what the USTA idiots did to poor Alize Cornet, for merely changing a shirt on court. That kind of stuff should go.

Serena has in the past been a role model for millions of women, and has fought both racial and gender discrimination, also agree. There’s so much she has done that is admirable in her long career.

But not in this instance. Here, she got beaten by a young kid playing her first slam final, who was playing very well. She lost control of her reactions / emotions, wasn’t able to get it back on track, and then used a whole lot of random arguments.

If she did it deliberately, to throw people off from the core issues involved, that is just unacceptable. There is another possibility, that she with her past record of both experiencing discrimination (racial and gender) and perceiving it, more particularly at the US Open where she’s been both victim and villain in the past, might have felt that she was being unfairly picked upon. That the umpire was not just playing by the book, he was ‘out to get her’. From that perspective, her complaints of sexism would have been justified in her mind, so it wasn’t deliberate.

In either case, there is nothing here in this incident that supports her accusation in my view.
Williams with winner Naomi Osaka at the US Open 2018

As for the crowd, sure looks like a good advert for Trump’s America.

Oh, and well played Naomi! Congrats!


About the Author:

Sriram Subramanian, is a graduate from IIT Roorkee and IIM Calcutta and an ex-management consultant, founder of Mind Matters – a training firm. He has also published two novels: Rain-A Survivor’s Tale (Readomania, 2016) and Centre Court – An Indian Summer at Wimbledon (Readomania, 2017). His sons have been National and State ranked junior tennis players.  


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