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What a racket!

September 12 - 18, 2018
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Gulf Weekly Kristian Harrison
By Kristian Harrison




Gulf Weekly What a racket!

STANDING a few feet away from the Grand Slam trophy which she had just won, Naomi Osaka started crying.

The 20-year-old Asian star had just beaten her childhood idol Serena Williams, bidding for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title and her first since giving birth, in the US Open final.

Still wearing the black visor she had worn throughout the 6-2 6-4 victory, Osaka - the first player from Japan to win a major tournament - pulled it down over her face to cover the emotion.

During what should have been the happiest moment of her career, they did not seem to be tears of joy.

Boos rang around Arthur Ashe Stadium - not directed at her, but at a sense of injustice felt by most of the 24,000 crowd against American superstar Williams.

“I felt bad at one point because I’m crying and she’s crying. You know, she just won,” said former world number one Williams, 36.

So, how did it get to this point? How was one young woman’s greatest moment of her career, probably life, ruined in such fashion?

Murmurs of dissent were first heard when Williams, who had already lost the first set at Flushing Meadows, was given a code violation at 2-1 in the second after chair umpire Carlos Ramos ruled that her coach Patrick Mouratoglou was signalling tactics from the stands - which is not allowed.

Williams was seriously irked. “We don’t have any code,” she told the Portuguese. “I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose.”

After the match, Mouratoglou admitted in a television interview he had been coaching - but added ‘I don’t think she looked at me’ and ‘everybody does it’.

If the pair do not have a code, as Williams says, and if she did not see him make any signals, then she has a right to feel aggrieved - but with her coach, not the rule book.

The United States Tennis Association, which runs the tournament, issued a statement later backing Ramos. It said he acted: ‘in accordance to the rules’.

While Williams says she wants to ‘clarify’ what Mouratoglou was thinking and saying, the Frenchman cannot be blamed for her anger escalating.

When Williams lost her serve later in the set, the mood in the stadium changed completely. First, the American smashed her racquet, and when Ramos gave her another violation – again a correct one – she exploded.

“I didn’t get coaching. You need to make an announcement that I don’t cheat. You owe me an apology,” she told the umpire.

“I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her. I have never cheated.”

By now Ramos was getting the sort of treatment reserved for a pantomime villain.

From that point it was a matter of when, not if, Osaka went on to clinch victory.

She broke serve again for a 4-3 lead and then more drama unfolded when Williams continued to rant at Ramos. “You stole a point from me. You are a thief,” she said.

That earned Williams a third violation for verbal abuse, Ramos announcing he had penalised her a game as a sense of confusion and disbelief swept around the stadium.

An emotional Williams remonstrated further with Ramos and called for the tournament referee in what was rapidly becoming a chaotic situation.

Those pantomime boos quickly turned more menacing, however.

Loud jeers rained down on to the court. Some spectators were on their feet, some had their thumbs pointing down, and some shouted abuse at the umpire.

Osaka, somehow, kept her cool. Although Williams held to love immediately after the game penalty, the 20th seed maintained the composure she had showed from the start to take her second match point.

That was the moment Osaka, who was brought up in New York after her family moved over from Japan, had dreamed of since picking up a racquet - beating her idol in a Grand Slam final.

Still it felt like it was not the special moment it should have been.

Boos continued to be heard at the end of the match and again when the presentation began.

Osaka began to cry - a heart-wrenching moment which was hard to watch.

That’s when Williams, 16 years older than her opponent, intervened as her maternal instinct kicked in.

To me, this felt more than a little hollow. Poor Osaka’s greatest hopes and dreams had been accomplished, yet simultaneously destroyed, by her idol – the woman she’d written school projects on when she was learning the game.

Williams is a fantastic player, easily the greatest female to have played the game, but great winners also often make poor losers. This isn’t the first time she’s lost her rag on the court and likely won’t be her last.

What’s worse is she played almost every card in her hand too. Victim? Check. Sexism? Check. Motherhood? Check. In fact, I’m actually amazed she didn’t come out with the race card.

Naturally in this modern day, the row has been centred on the sexism angle and due to this, Williams has received far more support than she deserves instead of being widely condemned.

The fact remains that the umpire was right to penalise her on all accounts, but the main argument is that he could have showed some understanding of the occasion and given her a warning. Williams felt aggrieved that she was penalised for being coached, but obviously never looked at her coach so it seems like it came from nowhere.

That’s the issue to take up with her coach, though.

There’s also the narrative that male players get away with chirping away at the umpire and get told to get on with the game instead of being penalised. This argument does have some merit, as anyone who ever watched former champ John McEnroe would attest to. In fact, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has backed Williams’ claim.

“The WTA believes that there should be no difference in the standards of tolerance provided to the emotions expressed by men versus women,” WTA chief executive Steve Simon said in a statement.

Some former players, such as Lindsay Davenport, suggest umpire Ramos should have tried to ‘defuse the situation’ before issuing a game penalty.

From my point of view, this comes down to inconsistent umpiring rather than the letter of the law. This should be the issue focussed on and dealt with, rather than lending credence to William’s arrogance and poor sportsmanship.

And most importantly, let’s celebrate Osaka’s victory, which should be the true story here. Surely it’s the first of many to come.

 







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