In poker, when someone loses a big hand, they tend to go “on tilt,” a mental condition that prevents them from playing their best from that point on. Like anyone who has sat down at a card table, I’ve had many times where my decision-making and chip stack have both deteriorated because I couldn’t get past what had just happened. I try to tell myself to get up and walk away for a few minutes, but too often I’ve sat there fuming and playing poorly.
That’s clearly what happened to Serena Williams on Saturday in her US Open final again Naomi Osaka, a very talented 20-year-old who crushes the ball from the baselines and was just plain beating Serena. Now, I’ve watched great players like Serena, Rafa, Roger, and others come back from behind many times. I’ve often referred to the moment when Serena is down a couple of games and looks across the net as if to say, “Okay, you’ve had your fun, but I’m Serena Williams, bitch!” Then she pulls herself together and trounces her opponent.
That wasn’t happening Saturday. Even before Williams blew up at chair umpire Carlos Ramos, Osaka was outplaying her, and there was nothing Williams could do about it. That’s enough to affect your play, but when Ramos hit Williams with the code violation for coaching from the stands by Patrick Mouratoglou (which he’s admitted to, but she claims she didn’t see), she started going on tilt. When she lost her serve at 3-1 in the second set and smashed her racket, she was tilting even more. When Ramos hit her with another code violation for that, she went on super-tilt and started berating him, calling him a thief. That’s when he penalized her one point, as per the rules.
BUT…Ramos didn’t cost Williams the match. Naomi Osaka did, by playing better tennis. Today, the sports world should be abuzz about this brilliant newcomer, who had always dreamed of playing Serena on that hard court. When the dream became a reality, the crowd’s reaction turned it into a nightmare. Osaka, a shy young woman, must have felt that the booing was aimed at her for beating Serena. She even apologized for winning, which she should never have to do. The championship wasn’t handed to her — she earned it.
In any game — poker, tennis, football, chess — even the great ones don’t win them all. The important thing is how they handle themselves, and whether, afterwards, in reflection, they can see the true root cause of their loss. I hope Serena’s been able to do that in the last couple of days.
I have read a lot of commentary on this matter, much of it claiming sexism and racism were at the heart of Ramos’ actions. But in the best thing I’ve read today, Martina Navratilova, who I consider the greatest tennis player of all time, put the blame squarely on Serena’s shoulders:
It’s difficult to know, and debatable, whether Ms. Williams could have gotten away with calling the umpire a thief if she were a male player. But to focus on that, I think, is missing the point. If, in fact, the guys are treated with a different measuring stick for the same transgressions, this needs to be thoroughly examined and must be fixed. But we cannot measure ourselves by what we think we should also be able to get away with. In fact, this is the sort of behavior that no one should be engaging in on the court. There have been many times when I was playing that I wanted to break my racket into a thousand pieces. Then I thought about the kids watching. And I grudgingly held on to that racket.
Ms. Williams was absolutely marvelous toward Ms. Osaka after the match. A true champion at her best. But during the match — well, enough said. The way Ms. Osaka carried herself both during and after the match was truly inspiring.
So is there a double standard in tennis? We do need to take a hard look at our sport, without any rose-colored glasses, and root out any inconsistencies and prejudices that might be there. Tennis is a very democratic sport, and we need to make sure it stays that way.
But it is also on individual players to conduct themselves with respect for the sport we love so dearly. Because we all look so forward to the next time Ms. Williams and Ms. Osaka play each other; hopefully the drama will come from their magnificent shots and their fierce competitiveness — two athletes showing us how it is done, inspiring us all in the process.
One final thought on this subject. Tennis does need to change its ridiculous rules about coaching. It’s the only sport I know of where the players are isolated and unable to get help from the pros who have helped them prepare for the competition. What would be wrong with allowing a coach to talk to a player during a break, to help her get some advice on how to adjust, or to exploit a hole in his opponent’s game that wasn’t apparent from the baseline? If the practice of hand signals from the coach’s seat in the stands is so prevalent, why keep up the charade?