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On Serena and Sexism in Sports

Carlos Ramos (left) and Serena Williams (right) are discussing the issuance of code violations during the US Open Women’s Final in September 2018. PHOTO/ Getty Images

By Navin Rana

Published: September 26th, 2018

Sports have always featured an antagonistic relationship between the player and the scorekeeper. One iconic image of baseball is of a manager coming out onto the field to yell profusely at the umpire about a call. Across all sports, fans feel as though referees make unfair calls that irrevocably alter the course of a game.

At the US Open, the premier tennis tournament in the United States, Serena Williams entered a heated altercation with the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, during the Women’s Final. The argument started after Williams received two code violations: one for illegally receiving coaching during the match and one for breaking her racket. Everything came to a screeching halt with the delivery of a third code violation for verbal abuse in this argument. The third code violation slightly altered the momentum of the match; this meant that Naomi Osaka would be awarded a game point late in the second set. This shifted the momentum of the match and allowed Osaka to win in straight sets.

After the match and an awful award ceremony, Williams came out and called out the chair umpire for blatant sexism and said he acted as a thief. While some in the sports community are in agreement with Williams, there is an equally staunch stance from the opposing side claiming she was acting entitled and shouldn’t have argued with an umpire. Some reporters went so far as to call Williams “hysterical,” which seemingly supports the claims of sexism.

There are two obvious routes of answering the question of sexism that was brought forward by Williams and others. First is examining the role and response of Ramos during the match. Ramos is known for being a stubborn umpire, so this is clearly in line with his behavior. However, it remains unclear whether or not he gave Williams the third code violation because he was taken aback by a woman fiercely challenging his decisions.

The second method of analysis would come from a review of systemic judgments against both men and women during Grand Slams. However, this line also becomes blurred quite quickly. Twenty years’ worth of fines at Grand Slam events were reviewed by the London Telegraph. The data displayed that men received approximately three times more code violations (racket abuse, verbal abuse, etc.) than women during the Grand Slam events from 1998 to 2018. Even after correction for the fact that men played five sets while women played three sets, the differentials were against the men. However, many have pointed out that women are targeted more per punishable offence than men. If the men made 1000 violations in a season, they would receive a code violation 300 times for a 30% rate of enforcement. However, if there were 500 violations for women in a season and they received only 250 code violations, this would mean a 50% rate of enforcement which is significantly higher than it is for men. Therefore, even though the total number of code violations for women are lower than that for men, there seems to be a disproportionate rate of enforcement in favor of the men.

Nonetheless, there are clear signs of mistreatment of female players during matches based on the kinds of code violations received. Even earlier this very US Open, female player Alize Cornet was given a code violation for unsportsmanlike conduct. Her violation: quickly fixing her new shirt which was on backwards after coming back from a ten-minute break. This is a violation that men never receive on the court and is a very clear sign of bias on the part of that umpire.

In Williams’ situation, the claim of sexism versus appropriate actions on the part of the umpire is not an easily discernible call. Ramos was within his right to issue three code violations, but the manner in which he conducted himself was entirely unhelpful to the situation. He did nothing to help stop tensions from swelling – tensions which will obviously run high during the finals for a Grand Slam.

Unfortunately, this whole incident took away from the outstanding victory of the 20-year-old Naomi Osaka. Osaka was playing like a young Williams and would have won regardless of the late penalty. Osaka already defeated Williams in straight sets earlier this year at the Miami Open. Regardless, she is undoubtedly going to have a fantastic future in the sport. However, it was saddening to see her crying on the award stage as the US Open fans were booing her because of the continued rivalry between the player and the scorekeeper.

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