The 2018 women’s US Open final should’ve ended in a celebratory affair in which we witnessed the passing of the tennis torch from eventual runner-up, Serena “greatest athlete of all time” Williams, to the tournament’s winner, Naomi Osaka.
Instead, the final ended in a storm of controversy following Williams’ on-court dispute with the chair umpire Carlos Ramos over alleged unfair treatment, which subsequently triggered a conversation about sexism in tennis and a hefty $24,000 fine for Williams’ conduct.
While there’s a compelling narrative taking hold on how Williams was “robbed” in the final, and the very real sexism and racism she and other women face on their way to the top, it is the technicalities of tennis that ultimately led to this incident, most of which has been unfortunately lost underneath the wave.
In the midst of all this controversy, the thing we should be more focused upon in this 2018 women’s US Open final debacle isn’t sexism – it’s the standard of umpiring consistency in tennis and the need for an update to the rulebook.
The chair umpire performed his job to the letter
The whole incident was sparked when Ramos issued Williams a third code violation for verbal abuse, which resulted in her losing a game as a penalty. Some have quickly pointed fingers at the guy and declared him sexist for penalising Williams for what appeared to be minor infractions. But let’s dive into why this doesn’t hold up.
Ramos is a highly experienced and respected tennis chair umpire who has done the job for decades. He is also well-known for his strict adherence in following the rules and punishing players who break them, to the point where one would say he might a have stick up his butt that’s as long as his chair is tall.
But more importantly, the unfair treatment and sexism claims don’t really hold water here because Ramos is known for being incredibly tough to all top tennis players, male and female. Just ask Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Serena’s own sister Venus Williams.
The amount of backlash towards Ramos is enough to make your head spin, and one of the more prominent Twitter threads from a user unsubtly named Has The Umpire Been Fired Yet? rebutting the chair umpire lists a number of times in which he didn’t penalise players for their poor behaviour.
All the Carlos Ramos-related examples in the thread are comparable to Williams’ situation – but again, the technicalities of tennis’ rules were lost beneath the backlash and need to be taken into account for this whole incident.
In a nutshell, a first offence will result in a code violation that is essentially a warning. A second offence will score a second violation, which also carries a point penalty. And lastly (for this argument), a third offence will result in a third violation, which carries a game penalty.
Applying those official tennis rules to each of the Ramos-related examples of questionable umpiring in Has The Umpire Been Fired Yet’s thread, it’s clear that while some offences push the line, they all adhere to the rulebook.
- Novak Djokovic: Argument with Ramos, after smacking a racquet to the ground, where he called him “crap”. Is technically the first offence, therefore a code violation and a warning. Didn’t see Nishikori do the same thing, therefore couldn’t penalise him.
- Nick Kyrgios: Calling Ramos’ decision to penalise him for being loud to a towel boy “bulls**t“. Harsh language, yes, but still technically a first offence so therefore just a code violation and warning.
- Nick Kyrgios (again): Mad about two foot faults, but nothing bad was said beyond Nick saying to Ramos “it’s not possible” to get so many foot faults. Attitude maybe suspect but technically didn’t break any rules, so therefore no code violation.
- Andy Murray: Copped a code violation for calling Ramos “stupid” over a call. Insulting the ref, yes, but still a first offence, therefore just a warning.
- Rafael Nadal: Went over the 25s between points rule and copped a code violation. Still just the first penalty therefore only a warning.
So as we can see, Ramos certainly isn’t shy about dishing out code violations for breaking rules, some of which don’t seem that bad on paper, and he adhered to the rulebook each time, albeit still at his discretion.
In regards to Ramos’ decisions during the US Open final, Williams copped a first code violation for illegal coaching by her coach from the stands. Whether or not she saw it is up in the air, but the rulebook makes it clear that it isn’t on so Ramos, correctly, gave her a code violation. She later smashed a racquet and got a second violation.
Upset at losing the point over the previous code violations, Williams began to berate Ramos as a “thief” and a “liar” before demanding an apology, and this argument carried on on-and-off for several minutes. Now insulting and disrespecting the umpire is not on in tennis, and in response to Williams’ arguments, Ramos gave her a third code violation for “verbal abuse”, after which she began claiming that a man in her same situation would not be receiving the same treatment.
Perhaps an argument could be made that Ramos was quite tough and his decisions may have sapped the final of some spectacle – but everything he did was done correctly by the book. Williams broke the rules and was punished accordingly, plain and simple.
But while Ramos did his job to the letter – and in a high-stakes, high-pressure situation no less – not every chair umpire is as harsh as he is at enforcing the rules and this is where the real issue comes into play.
This specific incident isn’t as simple as sexist double standards. It’s about inconsistent level of umpiring that’s currently gripping tennis.
The inconsistencies of the chair umpire role were exposed in the final
The tennis rulebook is set in stone with rare ambiguities, but it is ultimately up to the chair umpire to enforce these rules in a match at their discretion. But as the 2018’s women’s US Open final and the epic Twitter thread criticising Ramos demonstrated, tennis is in need of an update to its rulebook and the standard of umpiring.
Ramos consistently applies his level of tough umpiring to every match he chairs, but his level of tough umpiring differs to other chair umpires at the same level, sometimes to the detriment of the sport.
Where Ramos gave a code violation for coaching to Williams, another chair umpire might be a bit more forgiving. This is perhaps highlighted by her coach admitting – on camera – that he was in fact coaching but he defended himself by saying “everyone does it” without repercussion. It just so happened that Ramos was the one who caught him and (again, rightly) issued a code violation.
Yes, it sucks that the player must shoulder responsibility for what their coach does from the stands, but it nevertheless is the rule (albeit one that should definitely be looked into).
You don’t need to be a lawyer to realise that admitting you’re guilty before saying “everyone does it” isn’t exactly the best defense, but Williams’ coach’s odd logic does highlight the need for a consistent level of umpiring in tennis, one that is not governed by an umpire’s own discretion, particularly on cracking down on illegal coaching from the stands.
Put it another way, there’s a good chance this whole debacle would not have happened at all had there been a different, less “harsh” umpire in the chair instead of Ramos.
Whether Ramos’ decisions ultimately had an impact on the final result we will never know, as well as whether he carried some bias in applying penalties to Williams.
But regardless of whether Ramos is or isn’t sexist (and I highly doubt he’s going to talk much about it now) Williams’ suggestions of bias in this specific incident prove how badly consistency across umpiring is needed – not least because the sexism and racism she’s already faced is very real.
It’s bigger than just one umpire
Having said all that, Williams’ anger during the 2018 US Open final was not unwarranted. If anything, that initial coaching infraction that underpinned her for the rest of the match and resulted in subsequent penalties is an apt metaphor for her entire career in which she has been hobbled and punished for things that aren’t her fault.
From higher-than-average rates of drug testing to weirdly charged media coverage that has ranged from patronising to downright racist, she and her older sister, as powerful women of colour, have faced racism and opposition ever since they started their professional tennis careers, and both are big pillars in the fight for equality in tennis.
Despite all of Serena’s unparalleled success over the last two decades and her virtually-cemented status as the greatest tennis player ever, she still faces pushback on and off the court, most recently with the utterly absurd banning of her awesome French Open catsuit outfit.
Combine that recent ruling with the other US Open controversy, where female player Alize Cornet was punished for changing her shirt on-court while male players like Djokovic freely paraded their pits to cheers from the crowd, it’s easy to see why Williams would be, ahem, a little on edge during the final.
Plus, there’s the whole heat-of-the-moment adrenaline and a history-making 24th grand slam title on the line to think about on top of everything else.
There’s definitely many more conversations to be had about sexism and equality in tennis, especially with the standard to which female players’ behaviour is being held to compared to male players. And there’s no doubt that much of the coverage of Williams’ fury in the final was shaded to various degrees with racist clichés about black women’s anger.
But that’s a conversation separate from what happened with Ramos and deserves to be talked about on its own platform, rather than being tacked onto something that is in reality no more than tough umpiring and the need to update the rules of the game.
The real story here should be about Naomi Osaka’s historic win
Moving beyond the whole Williams v Ramos debacle, as well as the renewed conversations about sexism in tennis that needs to be talked about, the biggest story is and should be about the 2018 US Open is Naomi Osaka’s stunning victory.
At just 20, Osaka has managed to win her first grand slam and vault herself into the top 10 rankings for the first time. But more historically, she is the first Japanese player to ever win a grand slam, and that in itself is just awesome on so many levels.
Let’s move on from the ugliness of that US Open final and focus on what should’ve been the story in the first place – an up-and-coming player with a diverse background stepping up to the big leagues and continuing the path forged by her idol, Serena Williams.
Revel in the spotlight, Naomi Osaka – you deserve every second of it.