I do not feel qualified to comment on the U.S. Open Women’s Final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka from a tennis perspective. Truth is, I stopped following professional tennis about the same time Andre Agassi hung up his acid-wash shorts. However, as the father of three children, I have a Ph.D. in what was going on with Serena during her throw-down with chair umpire Carlos Ramos.
I know a temper tantrum when I see one.
When my daughter was four or five years old, she would commit some transgression or other that would result in her being scolded or given a timeout. Often, instead of accepting her punishment, she would stamp her feet and cry while insisting that we apologize for punishing her. Her reasoning: “Even though I did something wrong, this punishment is making me sad. So, it must be YOUR fault for making me sad. I demand that you say you’re sorry for making me sad!”
It was the same kind of cognitive dissonance Serena felt on Saturday. She lost the first set badly but had managed to take a 3-1 lead in the second. Despite the lead, Serena seemed very rattled. She was clearly looking into the stands for help. (Sorry, Serena fans. It’s true.) Whether she received it or not is a matter of some debate, although her coach Patrick Mouratoglou openly admitted motioning to her to move to the net. His reasoning: “Everybody else does it.” (Boy, if that one doesn’t top the list of little kid reasons for doing something wrong.)
At this point, Serena was issued a warning for coaching. Not a penalty. A warning. It was here, I believe, that Serena saw her out. Even if she had won the second set, the third was no guarantee. After all, Serena is only 2-7 after losing the first set of a Grand Slam Final. So, rather than accept the warning and the loss, she did what my daughter used to do. She went nuclear.
After telling Ramos that she would “rather lose than cheat” she insisted that he apologize for insinuating that she had received coaching. In other words, “Losing is making me sad. Your warning is making me sad. Therefore, it’s your fault I’m losing. Apologize to me!”
From this point forward, it all went totally off the rails. A Serena racquet smash led to the loss of a point, which culminated in the verbal showdown where she called Ramos a “thief” and a “liar” over the loss of said point. On this subject, a lot of pro tennis players have weighed in saying that they’ve called chair umpires far worse and not been penalized. And, like Serena, they are wrong here.
If you’ve played competitive sports in your life, you’ve likely heard some ear-melting language directed at rival players and referees alike. This is neither excusable nor acceptable, but it is largely nothing more than bad words. Call me a jerk, a bastard, an a**hole, even a motherf’er and I shrug, flip you the middle finger salute and move on with my life. Those are uncreative and impersonal things to call someone and though they sound tough, those words carry little meaning or weight. But, call me a thief or a liar and you’ve impugned my character. You’ve passed judgment about who I am and how I conduct myself as a person. And I will not let that pass.
And yes, if you were defending Serena, this is where you would point out that Ramos had implied that she was cheater by warning her about coaching. But, he didn’t make that ruling impetuously or because he had it in for Serena. He saw her look to the player’s box and saw her coach signal her. What else was he supposed to do?
Believe me, I don’t hold Ramos blameless in all of this. When the “thief” and “liar” tirade was happening, he should have turned off his microphone and said “Look, Ms. Williams, I understand you’re upset. But, I saw what I saw and, in my position, I have to issue a warning. Once you had that warning, I had to deduct a point for the racquet abuse. I don’t want to penalize you further. So, let’s get on with the match.”
Instead, he acted just as childishly as Serena by issuing a game penalty and effectively handing the match to Osaka. As a result, the players, the fans, the TV viewers and the sport itself suffered. Everybody lost.
Serena Williams is a new mother, which is reason enough to admire her performance as she fought off the rust to advance to the final of one of the world’s biggest tournaments. However, as a new mother, she hasn’t yet experienced the wrath and unreasonableness of a small child. Her baby isn’t old enough to defy her yet. But, the first time Alexis stomps her feet and demands an apology for being punished, Serena is going to have an “Ah ha!” moment. Or, as many parents call it, an “Oh s**t!” moment.
That’s when your child commits a horrifying and egregious act that you recognize as something you yourself did as a kid. It’s the kind of thing that makes you call your parents and apologize for your entire childhood. (I’ve made that call many times myself.) And when Serena eventually does have that moment, I think she may feel differently about everything that happened this weekend.
When you take away all the gender politics and grandstanding on both sides, it comes down to this: Serena Williams is a great champion who had a temper tantrum in the finals of the 2018 U.S. Open. That doesn’t make her any less a great champion. It just means that she’s like the rest of us—an imperfect human being.
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