The US Open Women’s Final had too much drama and very little tennis, and ever since the new champion was crowned, social media sites and newspapers have been running op-eds, articles, debates and discussions on the events that unfolded during the match. The stage was all set, Serena Williams, arguably one of the greatest players to ever grace the sport, gunning for a record breaking 24th Grand Slam title, eager to write the greatest comeback story by getting back to the top after her pregnancy and all that stood in her way was 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, a first time finalist. Everything seemed perfect, and an ever partisan crowd was awaiting the coronation of their very own Queen. But things weren’t as simple as they seemed.
There was a moment in the middle of the match, wherein Serena was crying and asking the officials to rethink their decision while a rather sheepish Osaka stood by the sidelines waiting for the final decision. One of the most important matches in both women’s lives and tennis was not taking center stage.
Naomi Osaka came out with everything she had and battled through, dominating the first set with power hitting, precision and determination. The crowd was mildly agitated but still hoped and felt that their favourite would come back as she so often has to set the stage for a coronation. But things were not to be that way this time around. Williams received a code violation for on court coaching, and this visibly upset her as she rushed to the umpire’s chair to talk about how she has never cheated and would rather lose than win by cheating. The champion was not able to turn things around and in frustration broke her racket by slamming it on to the court, earning Osaka a penalty point due to her misdemeanor.
This proved to be the breaking point for Williams who was disturbed by the previous call, and she marched up to the umpire’s chair to let umpire Ramos know what was going on inside her head. What followed in the next tense moments was a rant that saw Williams call Ramos a ‘thief’ who had stolen a point off of her and also sexist for she believed that the same fate would not have been meted out to her if she were a man. Tensions rose further as the heated exchange led to Ramos issuing a game penalty that put Osaka within reach of her maiden Grand Slam title.
Two games later, it was all done. The twenty-year-old who had grown up idolising Serena had declined her a 24th title, and it was the gritty Japanese that walked away victorious. But was it a sweet victory?
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I believe not. As debates rage on about sexism within the circuit and whether Serena was right in behaving so, I would like to think that no one walked away from this exchange at a greater loss than the winner herself- Naomi Osaka. Several senior executives and veteran players came out in support of both the accused- Serena and umpire Ramos. While Martina Navratilova, an 18-time Grand Slam singles champion, believed Serena was at fault, Billie Jean King stated that she stood by Williams.
Serena Williams tried to salvage the situation by asking people not to boo during the award ceremony and even went on to congratulate Osaka who had achieved what no other Japanese player had ever done. But the damage had been done, and it was visible on the face of the 20-year-old who was in tears during the ceremony.
In a statement after the match, officials from the USTA explained that the chair umpire’s decisions were final during the course of a match. In her post match conference, Williams talked about how this was her standing up for women all over the world, and this double standard had to stop. It is interesting to note that Serena has a very bad history at the US Open. In 2004, bad umpiring led to several outbursts and her eventual defeat against Jennifer Capriati. The tournament later apologised to Williams and introduced the Hawkeye review system the next year. In 2009, she was called out on a foot fault that led to her berating the line umpire, which gave Kim Clijsters the match as she was docked a point for her behaviour. Two years later, in the final against Samantha Stosur, early celebration led to a warning and an outburst again culminating in her loss.
But what spoke volumes about this incident wasn’t shades of feminism or women empowerment but rather how victory was snatched from the hands of Osaka due to a highly partisan crowd and unnecessary drama. Watching a Grand Slam Champion stand with her head bowed down and in tears during the award ceremony is nothing but a blemish to the sport. Her moment of glory after years of sacrifices, trials and tribulation had been reduced to a fiasco.
The boos she heard that night will remain etched in her memory for the rest of her life and everyone is responsible for that, whether it be Williams, Ramos or the crowd.
Osaka was the better player on this particular day and it sad that her brilliant display of tenacity and talent will be forever resigned to the footnotes. This I believe was the worst part of the whole affair that everyone who attended wish they could forget.
By Athulya Mohandas