Lily Herman is a writer and activist. The views expressed here are her own.
The final women’s match of the U.S. Open was an exciting pairing: Serena Williams, one of the greatest athletes in history, was in her second Grand Slam final after giving birth to her daughter only a year ago. She was playing Naomi Osaka, a 20-year-old breakout star trying to bring home the first Grand Slam title for Japan.
The competition itself took a back seat, however, after umpire Carlos Ramos issued a number of controversial code violations against Williams. First he said that she received coaching from the sidelines. Then he claimed Williams slamming her racquet required another violation. And when she called him a thief after her second violation, standing up for herself amongst tennis officials, Ramos gave Williams a game penalty. And in the end, Osaka won the title.
Osaka played a masterful match against Williams, a woman to whom she’s shown great admiration; Osaka actually said in a pre-game interview that she loved Williams. She accomplished an incredible feat by becoming the first player representing Japan to win a Grand Slam title, which she did amid of her own battles with sexism and racism as a biracial woman playing for a country contending with compounding social issues around gender, race, and class. This umpire not only stripped Williams of a fair game — one for her to win or lose on her own — on ridiculous technicalities; he robbed Osaka of a victory unburdened by complications. Osaka cried through her awards ceremony and felt compelled to apologize to the crowd for winning.
It didn’t take long for media outlets to decry Serena Williams for “having a meltdown.” That reaction props up the harmful, racist “angry Black woman” trope that Serena Williams must maneuver around with every move she makes.
It didn’t take long for media outlets like Reuters and the New York Post to decry Serena Williams for “having a meltdown.” That reaction is indicative of the sexism Williams contends with constantly. It also props up the harmful, racist “angry Black woman” trope she must maneuver around with every move she makes. If Williams stands up for herself, she risks code violations and rare game penalties. If she says nothing, it could mean losing matches, which means losing sponsorships, deals, and fans. On a larger scale, it also empowers problematic officials to continue their unfair behavior without question or reflection.
For those wondering if Williams throwing a racquet or arguing with an umpire is an outlier, it isn’t — not by a long shot. The sport of tennis has spent decades celebrating the antics of male players like John McEnroe, Ilie Năstase, and Jimmy Connors. McEnroe has literally made dozens of commercials off of his penchant for yelling at umpires, particularly since his retirement. Năstase wasn’t professionally reprimanded until this year when he was banned from having any official tennis role until 2021 for making a racist comment about Williams’ daughter and was accused of sexual harassment and misconduct by several female players. Conners was recently spotlighted for his “bad behavior” at previous U.S. Opens but is still actively giving commentary on the sport. Not to mention that there are entire compilations dedicated to tennis players having tantrums, often without official reprimand.
What took place at the U.S. Open is just the latest in an overflowing stream of patriarchal bullshit that happens constantly in women’s tennis. It manifests as Serena Williams was told by the head of the French Open she couldn’t wear her catsuit, an item of clothing designed to help prevent the blood clots that nearly killed her after giving birth. It continues as player Alizé Cornet received a violation for flipping her backwards shirt around on the court while male players like Novak Djokovic walk around shirtless whenever they want. And it’s fact decades after Billie Jean King’s historic Battles of the Sexes win against Bobby Riggs that tennis tournament officials like former Indian Wells tournament CEO Raymond Moore are still trying to argue female players “ride the coattails” of their male counterparts.
The pattern goes far beyond tennis. Women gymnasts are holding USA Gymnastics and U.S. Olympic Committee members’ feet to the fire after the rampant sexual abuse hundreds of their peers suffered at the hands of former organization doctor Larry Nassar, in addition to the allegations of psychological harm by other officials in the sport. Numerous athletes have accused brothers Jean and Steven Lopez, both members and coaches in USA Taekwondo, of sexual misconduct and abuse. USA Swimming is facing an onslaught of reports of sexual abuse at the hands of coaches across the country, with swimmers and parents alike saying their concerns weren’t taken seriously. The fight for equal pay in sports like basketball, soccer, and hockey has been well-documented for decades. Overall, the frustrations and rage in women’s sport are reaching a fever pitch — and whether it’s sexism during competition, sexual abuse allegations, or a fight for equal pay, it’s time to take women athletes seriously.
But if there’s one thing this game showed, it’s that the solidarity and support shown by women for fellow women — in this case, Black women continuing to stand by Black women — is getting us somewhere. After the match, despite their frustration with the umpire, Williams and Osaka shared a sincere hug in a sport where competitors typically only shake hands after a match. As Osaka cried tears of anguish and the crowd booed the outcome, Williams told the stadium to cheer for her competitor.
“I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and that want to express themselves and they want to be a strong woman. They’re gonna be allowed to do that because of today,” Williams said after the match about her interactions with the umpire. “Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s gonna work out for the next person.”
She’s right. Because of her, it will. And millions of women and girls were watching.