By Will Swanton (The Australian).
An advertisement on auto-loop during American television coverage of the US Open featured Serena Williams as a mature and fiercely determined mother, kissing her toddler daughter goodbye before walking on to a tennis court and declaring to her rivals in a calm yet threatening manner, “I’m gonna knock you out. Mamma said knock you out.”
The lyrics from rapper LL Cool J’s 1990 song are used in the Chase Bank ad to push the new image of Williams as a firebrand transformed into a wise old soul now there’s a baby on board. Every media outlet has given blanket coverage to Williams’s attempt to win her first major championship since the birth of Alexis in September last year. And every storyline carried the same theme: The mother of all victories is upon us.
When the moment arrives, she’s nearly hyperventilating as she steps on to the Arthur Ashe Stadium court for the US Open final. She can equal Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 major wins if she beats the quietly spoken, and visibly trembling, Naomi Osaka from Japan. All the scripts have been written; all the public-relations lines have been spun. But then mamma knocks herself out with hysterical behaviour and illogical complaints.
She loses 6-2 6-4, Osaka is the first Japanese player to win a major. Williams’s ego-driven behaviour is compounded by a feral crowd behaving like they’re on the set of The Jerry Springer Show. It’s been terrible from them. Terrible from Williams. And terrible from Katrina Adams, the boss of the US Tennis Association.
The New York Post reports: “It’s hard to recall a more unsportsmanlike event. Here was a young girl who pulled off one of the greatest upsets ever, who fought for every point she earned, ashamed. At the awards ceremony, Osaka covered her face with her black visor and cried. The crowd booed her. Katrina Adams … opened the awards ceremony by denigrating the winner and lionising Williams — whose ego, if anything, needs piercing. ‘Perhaps it’s not the finish we were looking for today,’ Adams said. ‘But Serena, you are a champion of all champions.’
“Addressing the crowd, Adams added, ‘This mamma is a role model and respected by all.’ That’s not likely the case now … ”
No one doubts Williams’s passion for women’s rights and the seriousness of the racism she’s encountered in her life. But neither is relevant here. She’s been playing a tennis match, and that is all. She’s been losing the contest when she’s lost the plot. That’s important. Her meltdown may be a shock to the casual observer but those who have watched tennis over the years have seen this before from her. On the same court. At the same tournament. The same discombobulations, if not worse.
Against Belgium’s Kim Clijsters in the 2009 semi-finals, she’s blown a gasket after being called for a foot-fault at 4-6, 5-6, 15-30. It’s on her second serve, which means she faces match point. She waves her racquet at the female line judge and says, “I swear to God, I’m f. king going to take this f. king ball and shove it down your f. king throat, you hear that? I swear to God.” The lineswoman walks to the umpire, Louise Engzell, and tells her what has been said. (Williams has already received a code violation for smashing a racquet. A second violation equals a penalty point. A third violation, a penalty game. A fourth violation, the match.) Because it’s match point against Clijsters, that’s all she wrote. Clijsters wins. The tournament director arrives on the court. In their three-way discussion, Williams tells the lineswoman, “I never said I would kill you! Are you serious? I never said that!” Two days later, Clijsters beat Caroline Wozniacki to become the first mother to win the US Open.
In the 2011 final against Australia’s Sam Stosur, Williams has been billed as the all-American heroine who will win the national championship on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The hype, then and now, has been too much for her. She descends into gamesmanship at best, or outright cheating at worst, by yelling “Come on!” as Stosur is attempting to hit a groundstroke. The female umpire, Eva Asderaki, correctly awards the point to Stosur. A petulant Williams tells Asderaki, “I am not giving her the game. You’re nobody. You’re ugly on the inside.” At the next change of ends, she shouts at the umpire: “You’re totally out of control. You’re a hater and unattractive inside. What a loser.” Williams is thrashed 6-2 6-3 before Stosur says in her laid-back Australian drawl: “Serena did something you can’t do.”
Williams has done against Osaka what she’s often done in New York. Lost all rational thought. Thrown the toys out of the cot. It makes a mockery of the Chase Bank ad and suggestions that she’s grown some sort of halo since bringing her daughter into the world. That whole marketing campaign has now crashed and burned. Again, no one doubts Williams has fought like a lioness to go from the violent streets of Compton, Los Angeles, to the top of world sport. Her passion for women’s rights is genuine. Her pride in her young family is real.
If she hasn’t changed her on-court behaviour one bit since putting the mother into the hood, that is no bad thing. But looking up at the umpire’s chair in NYC, she’s been barking up the wrong tree. She’s been the victim of nothing. Things have escalated because of her and no one else. Umpire Carlos Ramos has followed the rules to the letter. With the match spiralling out of control in direct correlation with her emotions, she’s forgotten the law of holes — when you’re digging yourself one, stop bloody digging.
It’s a three-stage unravelling.
Stage one: Mamma has lost the first set. At 1-1 in the second set, she receives a warning about courtside coaching. Her mentor, Patrick Mouratoglou, has made hand gestures that encourage Williams to get to the net more often. (Mouratoglou later admits to “100 per cent coaching”.)
Both the coaching and the warning are common occurrences on tour. Mentors motion to their players or use coded signals — if I scratch my left ear, serve to his backhand. Some of them freely talk to their players. It’s often ignored by umpires, but when it is cautioned, there’s rarely drama. The normal response is for players to shrug and play on while the coaches sit on their hands for the rest of a match. When Ramos announces the warning, Williams tells the umpire her coach has given her a thumbs up and that it’s no secret code. “I know you don’t know that and I understand why you thought that was coaching, but I’m telling you it’s not. I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose. I’m just letting you know.” It’s been an emotional but relatively unremarkable dialogue. More to come.
Stage two: Leading 3-2 in the second set, Williams is docked a point for her second code violation. She smashes a racquet on the court. It’s a little difficult for her to argue with this one. Destroying a racquet is an automatic violation on tour. “This is unbelievable,” she tells Ramos before rambling about the previous transgression. “Every time I play here I have problems. What? That’s a warning? I didn’t get coaching. I didn’t get coaching. You need to make an announcement that I didn’t get coaching. I don’t cheat. I didn’t get coaching. How can you say that? You need to … you owe me an apology. You owe me an apology. I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her and I never cheated. You owe me an apology. You will never do another one of my matches!”
Stage three: At 3-4, Williams tells Ramos from her courtside chair at a change of ends: “For you to attack my character, it’s wrong. You’re attacking my character. Yes, you are. You owe me an apology. You will never, ever, ever be on another court of mine as long as you live. You are the liar. When are you going to give me my apology? You owe me an apology. Say it. Say you’re sorry.”
No apology. Williams says: “Well, then, don’t talk to me. Don’t talk to me. You stole a point from me. You’re a thief, too.”
Ramos decides to talk. “Code violation,” he says from his microphone. “Verbal abuse. Game penalty, Mrs Williams.”
She’s gone from 3-4 to 3-5. She’s one game from losing the match. With the crowd cheering for her, Williams says: “Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? Because I said you’re a thief? Because you stole a point from me. But I’m not a cheater. But I told you to apologise for me. This is out. Excuse me, I need the referee.”
While Osaka — another woman, it has to be said — is doing her best to stay calm in the most important moments of her career, tournament referee Brian Earley and WTA supervisor Donna Kelso arrive on the court. Williams tells Earley: “Because I’m a woman, you’re going to take this away for me? You know how many other men do things that are much worse than that. This is not fair. There’s a lot of men out here who have said a lot of things, and because they are men, that doesn’t happen to them.” Williams is told that she knew she risked a game penalty by berating Ramos, after two earlier violations. “No, I don’t know the risk because if I say a simple thing — a thief because he stole a point from me — that does not make … there are men out here that do a lot worse,” she says.
“You know it, and I know you can’t admit it, but I know you know it’s not right. I know you can’t change it but I’m just saying that’s not right. I get the rules but I’m just saying it’s not right. And it’s happened to me at this tournament every single year that I’ve played here. That’s just not fair. It’s all I have to say. It’s not fair.”
Osaka wins. Williams refuses to shake Ramos’s hand. The crowd turns shamefully ugly by booing Osaka as she steps up to accept the trophy.
William’s has broken three rules of tennis and been called out on all of them. None of them concerned equal rights at a tournament that provides equal pay for men and women. You cannot receive courtside coaching. If every other player and coach do it, it’s still no excuse. The smashed racquet speaks for its poor, busted self. You cannot accuse an umpire of stealing a point. You’re calling him a cheat.
“I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff,” Williams says in her post-match interview, still digging. “For me to say thief and for him take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark. I’m going to continue to fight for women.”
Which is an admirable thing to do in areas of relevance. On this occasion, she’s been playing sport against another woman. It’s not possible to have a more level playing field. She’s been throwing punches in the wrong direction.
Mamma has KO’d no one but herself. Williams has received what she deserved … and so has Osaka.
The boos and jeers have stopped, but she still has the trophy. And her reputation.
Cross court shots
John McEnroe’s legendary repeated cry of “You cannot be serious” starts with a line call from umpire Edward “the absolute pit of the world” James. McEnroe was fined $US1500 but went on to win at Wimbledon.
In the fourth round of the Australian Open, McEnroe becomes the first player since 1963 to be disqualified from a Grand Slam for misconduct. After receiving code violations for glaring at a lineswoman and smashing racquets, McEnroe argued with Grand Slam chief supervisor Ken Farrar, prompting umpire Gerry Armstrong to rule: “Default, Mr McEnroe. Game, set, match.”
Britain Tim Henman becomes the first player to be disqualified from Wimbledon in the open era. He angrily tried to smash a ball into the net after missing a shot but hit a ballgirl in the ear. Henman’s doubles partner Jeremy Bates was also disqualified.
Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis smashes four racquets after Stanislas Wawrinka jumps to a two-set lead at the Australian Open.
Australian Nick Kyrgios is fined $23,500 for imitating a lewd act with a water bottle during his loss to Marin Cilic at the Queen’s Club in London in June.