COLUMN: Serena Williams played the game and lost


Serena Williams in action against the Czech Republic's Karolina Pliskova in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Sept. 4 in New York. Williams was fined $17,000 after remarks she made against tennis umpire Carlos Ramos in the U.S. Open.  Tribune News Service Buy Photos

Though I was born and raised in Washington, D.C., there was always a semblance of Midwestern-ness in my household growing up.

This likely arose from my parents attending the University of Michigan. In practice, perhaps the most tangible reflection was the card game euchre.

To play, each participant is dealt five cards out of a deck that only includes nines through aces. Once the cards have been passed out, the top card from the remaining deck is flipped over.

From there, players alternate deciding whether to tell the dealer to “pick up” the flipped over card – making the suit of said card “trump” for that hand– or to pass the decision onto the next person.

Once the trump suite is declared, players take turns trying to out-trump their opponents. 

Like euchre, society has certain trump cards. They range from race and gender to age and beliefs.

In Saturday’s U.S. Open Women’s singles championship against Japan’s Naomi Osaka, tennis legend Serena Williams was charged a game after an outburst that included her calling chair umpire Carlos Ramos “a thief.” After the match, Williams blamed sexism for the reason she was penalized.

“I’ve seen other men call umpires several other things. For me to say ‘thief' and for him to take a game, it made me feel like that was a sexist remark,” Williams said. 

Normally this use of the gender card would take the proverbial hand. The difference here is that Williams played the best card in the deck and still lost.

Undoubtedly Williams is one of the greatest athletes that has ever lived, male or female.

I also hold a deep respect for her outspokenness regarding inequality for female professional tennis players – something she continues to fight for admirably.

But where I digress from the 23-time major champion is that this instance was an irresponsible time to explode in the manner and on the topic she did.

Williams’ implosion arrived in two parts. 

First, she was penalized for on-court coaching – something her coach Patrick Mouratoglou admitted to post-match. She was then assessed a penalty point – something a second misconduct warning warrants – for smashing her racquet in the second set. Thus, having already been penalized twice, the third instance – screaming at the umpire – resulted in a game being awarded to Osaka.

As an umpire, Ramos’ job is to make calls, but also to diffuse volatile situations. By making a ticky-tacky call in a major championship setting, he did quite the contrary. The less we discuss referees as it relates to a single match is generally for the better.

Thus, for Ramos to make the call he did is suspect.

That said, my issue lies with Williams’ response. 

It’s worth noting this isn’t her first flare-up at the U.S. Open. In the 2009 semi-final against Kim Clijsters, she was warned for racquet abuse after losing the first set. Later, while serving to stay in the match, Williams was called for a foot fault, granting Clijsters double match point. She then threatened to “shove this ball down your throat,” at the line judge who made the call.

She had a similar encounter in 2011 U.S. Open final against Samantha Stosur. Warned for yelling, “come on” before Stosur had a chance to hit a ball, Williams had choice words for the umpire.

“If you ever see me walking down the hall, look the other way," she proclaimed. "Because you're out of control. You're out of control. Totally out of control. You're a hater and you're just unattractive inside.”

So as much as I’d like to give Williams the benefit of the doubt in being wrongly penalized or that her reaction was justified, past transgressions suggest otherwise.

Further, the timing of Williams’ proclamations were astoundingly cheap. With her 6-2 6-4 win, Osaka became the first-ever Japanese grand slam champion – male or female. For the 20-year-old, the moment should have been one of celebration and triumph. 

It was the culmination of a life’s worth of practice and determination.

Instead, it became the Serena show. 

Williams made the moment about herself. Osaka even apologized to those settled in Arthur Ashe Stadium for beating the American. That’s not right.

To her credit, Williams attempted to quell the crowd. Standing alongside a tearful Osaka during the trophy presentation she said, “I don’t want to be rude. She played well. Let’s make this the best moment we can, let’s not boo any more.”

Despite the plea from Williams, the damage had already been done.

Frankly it’s impossible to know whether a male player would have been penalized for the same comments Williams made. That doesn’t change the fact she was fined $17,000 for her actions or that the International Tennis Federation backed Ramos’ decision.

This debate surfaced on ESPN’s First Take on Monday, as Max Kellerman, Stephen A. Smith and Molly Qerim argued the validity and timing of Williams’ comments.

Kellerman alluded to former world No. 1 male players John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, and how neither was polite when it came to chatting with chair umpires.

Relative to McEnroe and Connors, Williams’ comments were overtly less berating. Yet that doesn’t rationalize her actions.

Smith cited Ramos' past issues with 2018 men's U.S. Open champion Novak Djokovic and current world No. 1 Rafael Nadal — the latter of whom called for Ramos to never referee another of his matches following a time warning at the 2017 French Open.

“Had she made it about her then it would have been a stronger argument, but she said ‘I’m standing up for women’s rights’ etc., etc.,'" Smith contended. "If you can have men point to him being a problem, the same problem for them as there was for you, then it’s not about gender.”

While Saturday’s championship in Flushing Meadows, New York, took place far away from the Midwest, the region’s popular card game still applies.

Ramos’ decision was controversial, but Williams’ reaction was equally unbecoming. In trying to throw out her jack, Serena Williams still got out-trumped.

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