Why Men and Women View the Serena Williams Outburst Differently


Why Men and Women View the Serena Williams Outburst Differently

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

For years to come, the 2018 US Open will be remembered for being one of those rare events when the women’s final was more talked about than the men’s. The sad bit is that this interest comes on the back of a sombre moment: The outright vilification of Serena Williams and a champion moment cruelly stolen from Japan’s Naomi Osaka.

The 20-year-old Osaka dominated the final against 37-year-old Serena Williams – 23-time Grand Slam winner and dubbed the greatest player of all time – from the get-go. In her first ever Grand Slam final, Osaka held her own against her idol and outplayed Williams at every point imaginable to ultimately lift the trophy. It’s a fact that Osaka would have won either way – she was the better player of the day.

It was an extraordinary victory for Osaka: It merited unfettered praise, limelight, coverage. All Osaka got though, was an apologetic post-match ceremony replete with guilt, tears, and booing. The winner of the US Open became merely incidental to the proceedings.

But does acknowledging that Osaka was wronged cancel out the crucial fact – that Serena Williams was wronged as well? That Williams, like Osaka, became a victim of the US Open and the double standards that men and women face when it comes to decorum on court? This is precisely where so many of us differ, choosing to not dwell on the duality of the scenario that unfolded at the final. Instead, we hurriedly place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the “spoilt diva”, Serena Williams.

The larger chunk of the support for Williams has come from women across the world who have responded to her claim of double standards – possibly because stuff like this happens to us every day.

There’s no doubt that Williams let a seemingly minor infraction snowball into one of the nastiest meltdowns in a Grand Slam final. She is at fault – just the way chair umpire Carlos Ramos is. She could’ve taken a step back and not be consumed by her supposed betrayal. Just like he could’ve defused the tension instead of awarding her a game penalty for verbal abuse. Williams was both accurate and incorrect when she claimed that she was treated unfairly and that male players get away with much lesser consequences.

In reality, Ramos was following the rules when he cited a code violation for illegal coaching – her coach did admit to it. Irrespective of whether Williams saw his signals or not, it’s fair that she be penalised for her coach’s actions (it’s another thing that the rules of the US Open are to be actually blamed for it). Likewise, smashing of racquets has always constituted a code violation and Williams shouldn’t be treated any differently. But have male players always paid such a heavy price for expressing their frustration during a heated final?

While male players too have been penalised in the past, many have gotten away with similar displays of frustration. ESPN’s Mike Greenberg stated that he has heard “Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, and plenty of lesser known players say far worse than ‘thief’ on the court with lesser consequences.” More importantly, none of these “verbal abuses” have cost any male player a game.

What’s been even more interesting is how this forms the central conflict of how men and women have reacted to Williams’ outburst. Several men viewed it rather straightforwardly, siding with fairness in sport. According to them, Williams’ ego overpowered her respect for a sport which is why her accusation of sexism didn’t hold ground. Save for Andy Roddick who admitted that he had said worse and never gotten a game penalty, no male player has refuted the mainstream narrative that Serena Williams stole Osaka’s moment in the spotlight.

The larger chunk of the support for Williams has come from women across the world who have responded to her claim of double standards – possibly because stuff like this happens to us every day. It’s impossible to ignore that she is right in claiming that the game is not always sympathetic to women, even less to outspoken women like her.

Billie Jean King, after whom a stadium in the Flushing Meadows is named, registered her support, saying, “When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalised for it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ and there are no repercussions. Thank you for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same.” Katrina Adams, the President of the United States Tennis Association, that runs the US Open final has also agreed, as has former Grand Slam champion, Victoria Azarenka.

It’s because, as women we are aware that talking back sharply to a chair umpire – or any man in a position of even slight power – will always have consequences, even when there need not be any.

And that’s the reason why so many of us can’t brook this vilification of Williams. Because in this case, it’s the rules that are being used to discriminate. Sports writer Jonathan Liew writes, “Rules derive, essentially, from a system, an implicit covenant that all shall be treated equally, and all shall have the same opportunities. But what happens when the covenant is broken? What happens when the system doesn’t work for you? Perhaps then, your norms diverge from mine. Perhaps neither of us has the monopoly on morality. Many find the instinctive veneration of Serena in certain quarters a little cloying, perhaps even disturbing. But the point isn’t that Serena is always right, or that she makes up her own virtue as she goes along. The point is that when you have been wronged a thousand times over, it’s hard to credit the notion that ‘right’ exists at all.”

It’s true that on Saturday, Serena Williams was unsportsmanlike. But it’s equally true that even if she handled it better, she would still be wronged. Even in defeat.