Goodman: Serena’s meltdown was thievery, too

Serena Williams of the U.S. and Naomi Osaka of Japan at the trophy ceremony for the U.S. Open after Osaka defeated Williams in the final at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York, Sept. 8, 2018. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

Serena Williams put on a deeply disappointing display on Saturday. Her unconstrained anger over an umpire’s call ruined the U.S. Open women’s tennis singles final and completely deflated the stunning victory of a 20-year-old champion who has idolized the legendary 36-year-old icon all her life.

Yes, the chair umpire robbed Serena of a game, which basically put the uphill match out of reach for her. But Williams robbed the newcomer Naomi Osaka of something irreplaceable, the joy she should have had in winning her first Grand Slam and the clamor and attention that should now be washing over this rising star.

And yes, I know that double standards based on sexism exist in tennis, and that Palm Beach Gardens’ most famous resident could be absolutely right that umpire Carlos Ramos was excessively hard on her because of that. That’s the view of the incomparable Billie Jean King, who applauded Serena for standing up for women, and of the six-time U.S. Open champ, Boca Raton’s Chris Evert. That’s how it looked to my wife, watching TV with me as the incredible sequence of events unfolded on Saturday afternoon.

The hard-hitting Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins laid out that case with blunt authority:

Ramos took what began as a minor infraction and turned it into one of the nastiest and most emotional controversies in the history of tennis, all because he couldn’t take a woman speaking sharply to him.

My reaction was different. I was really stunned that Serena exploded — and then wouldn’t let go. Ramos did start things off by making a questionable call: that the struggling champ had been getting signals from her coach in the stands. Ramos penalized her with a warning.

But Serena immediately turned it into a judgment of her honor and character. “I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose,” she pleaded.

Never mind that the infraction was no indictment of her behavior, let alone her character. It was against the coach for gesturing. Ramos might have cooled things down right then if he had pointed that out to her.

Then, a little while later, Serena hit a backhand into the net, an unforced error, and smashed her racket in fury. Sorry, that’s not championship behavior. I hated it when John McEnroe did it, and I hated to see her do it. And she made it no more palatable by dressing it up as an act of sisterhood: Hey, women should have every right to be as obnoxious as the men!

It so happens that Martina Navritalova, no slouch as a warrior for women’s dignity, agrees with me, writing: “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.”

For throwing the racket, Ramos properly charged Williams with a penalty. This second infraction cost her a point.

The context: We were in the second set. Williams had lost the first set, soundly, 6-2. She was losing this one. She wasn’t moving around the court well. Her serve was failing her. And Osaka had nothing but poise. The young Japanese-American-Haitian who got her training in Fort Lauderdale, now on the Arthur Ashe Stadium stage before a worldwide audience, was firm, focused, fluid and hitting with accuracy.

But Williams couldn’t drop it. She approached the chair and demanded an apology — which, c’mon, was never going to happen. Referees don’t do that, no matter the sport.

Then she went completely off the rails with a rant about being a mother and raising her daughter to “stand for what’s right for her.” Serena now seemed to me like someone carrying too heavy a load, not just a tennis champ chasing records for all-time, but a very self-conscious role model out to show that she could bounce back from a maternity leave, be a standard bearer for a new-model kind of strong, black femininity and perform at the highest level of her sport, all at the same time.

Even after the match resumed, and Osaka won another game, to lead 4-3, Williams resumed the argument and called Ramos a “liar” and “a thief.”

That was it. Penalty number three. Which meant Serena lost a full game. Just like that, it was Osaka, 5-3, and needing to win just one more game for the championship trophy.

Was that fair? Not really. Ramos could, and should, have played it cooler. But the real problem was that Williams should have got hold of her emotions before that final outburst.

It seems to me that you can’t win at anything if you don’t put your emotions on hold and focus on the challenge at hand. (Sure, the anger worked for McEnroe, but he is that unusual psychological type, the person who blows up and then feels calm and rejuvenated, no matter how anyone else around them feels.) Most of us can’t function well at all when we’re clouded by rage.

The fact is, bad calls happen. They even happen to great athletes. The job of the athlete is to compartmentalize it. Put it aside. Put yourself back in the match.

Then, after you’ve lost or won, complain and campaign all you want.

Is this hard to do? Hell, yes. I doubt that I could banish my anger from my mind if I thought my integrity had been impugned. I would be beside myself with rage. But I’m not a champion. She is. You only get to be a champion of Serena Williams’ caliber with very strong mental discipline – which she has had to employ for years, given the umpteen obstacles she was forced to overcome to dominate in such a white person’s sport.

Serena, the six-time U.S. Open champion, did not have that discipline on Saturday. In front of a crowd that really, really wanted to see her regain the crown for the first time since 2014.

All this said, I wonder why women’s tennis doesn’t insist on female umpiring. If pro-male bias is so insidious in this sport, then why not take the decision-making out of men’s hands altogether?