Sex and the Players

A man does it and it doesn’t affect his game. A woman does it and it tarnishes her reputation. So the mantra goes.

America’s international women’s tennis champion, Serena Williams, believes it sexist her punishment of fines and docking her points in her US Open finals match against Japanese Naomi Osaka on Saturday, Sept 8.

Match umpire Carlos Ramos, docked a game for verbal abuse, deducted a point penalty for smashing her racquet and determined a code violation for coaching. The United States Tennis Association, the national governing body in the US, that owns and organizes the tournament, deducted $17,000 in fines from her $1.85m runner-up purse for the code violations.

Several current and former legends of the game, men and women, have spoken in support of or against Williams who denied being coached, and shouted at the umpire that she wouldn’t cheat because she has a daughter (to whom she is an exemplar).

Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou subsequently tweeted and told reporters he had tried to signal her and Williams, who questioned why he’d say so, had previously said that she interpreted his sign as a thumbs up rather than a signal to move forward. The rules of the competition ban not just coaching but all communication.

Tennis seems to be administered by several different fiefdoms (a considered usage in view of the royal, elitist origins of the sport) at the world, national and sex levels.

Steve Simon, the man at the head of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), which governs the women’s sport internationally, backs the claim of Williams: “The WTA believes that there should be no difference in the standards of tolerance provided to the emotions expressed by men versus women.

“We do not believe that this was done.”

Statistics and history can speak to the issue of alleged sexism. According to the BBC, at the 2018 US Open, three men and three women were penalised for an audible obscenity, five men were fined for time delays, while four men and one woman were penalised for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Williams and Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova, were punished for on-court coaching while no man was penalized for this offence. The BBC doesn’t say whether this was because men being coached was ignored by the officials.

Umpire Ramos, the BBC reports, “has given Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray code violations in the past two years.

“He also accused Serena’s sister, Venus, of receiving coaching during a 2016 French Open match, although she wasn’t penalised.”

So let’s look at other instances of players being penalized for code violations. Britain’s Andy Murray and France’s Pierre Benoit have been docked points by umpires at critical junctures in matches.

Reuters news agency reports that Paire was docked a penalty point for receiving coaching from his support team during his third-round defeat by Kei Nishikori at the French Open. He was given a point penalty on set point against the Japanese for the breach, having already been warned for mangling a racquet during the second set.

“If it had been Rafa Nadal or any good players for sure they wouldn’t have had a warning,” Paire said. “To have a warning on set point, it’s not possible.”

The Telegraph report from the 2017 incident at the French open summarized: “Murray had been way off the pace in the first set of the quarter-final, which he lost 6-2, and was in danger of being broken again in the third game of the second when Ramos abruptly docked him a first serve for playing too slowly. Having already received a first time violation in the third game of the match, Murray was enraged by the decision.”

It’s interesting that in both games Japanese Kei Nikishori was the opponent. In Murray’s case, the umpire was the same Ramos, who officiated the Williams Osaka match.

There are some who say America’s John McEnroe got away lightly for his infamous tantrums, so let’s look at the history.

A 1991 United Press International report carried by Deseret News looked at “[t]he record of John McEnroe’s altercations with tennis authorities since he broke into the international circuit in 1977.”

Among the more memorable of his 21 incidents itemized, that resulted in $69,000 in fines, were:

  • July 1981 – Fined a total of $6,000 at Wimbledon when he called chair umpire “pits of the world” and told him, “You cannot be serious!” Referee Fred Hoyles said he had come within two tantrums of disqualification during early match against Tom Gulliksen. Defeated Bjorn Borg in a four-set final, but boycotted champions dinner, resulting in another fine. Recommended additional fine of $10,000 overturned on appeal.
  • September 1987 – Suspended two months and fined $10,000 for various offenses at U.S. Open.
  • January 1990 – Thrown out of Australian Open and fined $6,500 after receiving third warning for misbehavior against Mikael Pernfors.
  • July 1991 – Fined $10,000 for swearing at linesman in Wimbledon loss against Stefan Edberg, picked up by television microphone.

The instances cited here cover verbal abuse of umpires as well as other on court offences.

Perhaps the most interesting quote in this whole Serena Williams episode comes from the head of the USTA, which as has been noted, organises the US Open.  USTA chief Katrina Adams is quoted as saying men “are badgering the umpire on the changeovers and nothing happens. We watch the guys do this all the time.

“There’s no equality when it comes to what the men are doing to the chair umpires and what the women are doing, and I think there has to be some consistency across the board.”

The question arises whether sex should affect how a law is applied. Should the law be deemed unfair because it was applied against a man and not a woman and therefore be declared a bad law? Or is the breach not the law but its poor application? It’s possible that what may be sexist is not the law itself but those applying the law—if indeed statistics bear out the allegation of impartial application—and it’s the officials that need to be retrained or changed for better on-court sex relations.

Mark Lee

About Mark Lee

Editor, author and writer with career spanning print, radio, television and new media.

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