The world of professional tennis has seen some epic meltdowns by its players.
This summer, French player Benoit Paire destroyed multiple tennis rackets during a match at the Citi Open in Washington. Canadian Denis Shapovalov defaulted a match last year after smacking a ball right into an umpire’s eye, fracturing a bone.
Andre Agassi once yelled “son of a bitch” at an umpire and spat on the man’s leg during the U.S. Open in 1990. John McEnroe’s entire tennis career was marked ― and often marred ― by on-court tantrums directed at officials over what he perceived to be blown line calls.
Flare-ups by top-notch tennis players are so common, it’s often viewed as a funny quirk of the sport.
Serena Williams’ outburst on Saturday during her U.S. Open final against Naomi Osaka was not one of those meltdowns. Yet the umpire’s mishandling of the situation and the news headlines that followed the match treated it as one.
Some of the aforementioned epic meltdowns were met with penalties and disqualifications, but Williams pointed out on Saturday ― both to the umpire during the heat of the moment and afterward to reporters ― that tennis officials have a track record of being more lenient in responding to men’s anger on the courts.
“Do you know how many other men do things that are much worse than that?” she told U.S. Open officials who came onto the court as Saturday’s squabble unfolded.
“This is not fair,” Williams added.
Billie Jean King, a tennis legend who was ranked number one in the world multiple times, agreed.
“When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it,” King tweeted after the match. “When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ & there are no repercussions.”
Let’s examine the match again.
The tension was already high for both players before Williams’ clash with umpire Carlos Ramos. She was going after her 24th Grand Slam title to tie the career record for women with the legendary Margaret Court. Osaka was vying for her first Grand Slam title and seeking to become the first Japanese player ― male or female ― to win such an event.
But even under those pressure-cooker conditions, Williams reacted relatively calmly to Ramos’ first violation call, according to footage of the match.
Ramos claimed she illegally communicated with her coach, but she sternly and politely denied it.
“I understand why you may have thought that was coaching but I’m telling you it’s not,” Williams told him. “I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose.”
Later on the sidelines, Williams could be seen communicating with Ramos ― again calmly ― as she stressed she doesn’t cheat. Ramos can be heard saying, “I know that,” to which Williams replied, “Thank you so much.”
Tensions heightened when Williams threw her racket on the ground after missing a shot. The display of frustration moved Ramos to issue another violation ― and this second one meant a point penalty was assessed against Williams.
Confused about the situation, Williams asked for an explanation and began defending herself after Ramos brought up the first violation that he had issued.
Williams argued that the first violation should have been rescinded and ratcheted up her insistence that Ramos apologize for ruling that she had been trying to communicate with her coach. She called him a “liar,” as well as a “thief” for the point penalty. And she told him he would never umpire another match of hers.
Ramos issued a game penalty against Williams for her rhetoric, prompting her to call for an on-court conference with other Open officials so that she could defend herself further.
“Do you know how many... men do things that are much worse than that? This is not fair,” Williams told the officials. “There’s a lot of men out here who have said a lot of things and because they are men, nothing happens to them.”
At no time did Williams curse at Ramos or the officials, nor did she hurl a ball at them, scream to the crowd or yell at her opponent ― behavior that has been part of other notable tennis breakdowns.
Still, many news stories framed Williams as an angry and overly emotional woman. The Telegraph’s headline said Williams “unleashed furious rant at umpire.” Other articles included mentions of a “meltdown,” an “angry Williams,” a “sore loser,” and an “extraordinary rant.”
Williams (who’s chair of the board of advisers for HuffPost’s parent company, Oath) and King are right. Men have done far worse on professional tennis courts. She did violate court rules by thrashing her racket, but YouTube compilations of tennis matches over the decades prove that’s not an uncommon reaction for players ― especially men.
Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins was among those taking Ramos to task for how his confrontation with Willaims played out.
The umpire “took what began as a minor infraction and turned it into one of the nastiest and most emotional controversies in the history of tennis, all because he couldn’t take a woman speaking sharply to him” Jenkins wrote.
Activist and community organizer Brittany Packnett framed the intensified scrutiny Williams faces over her reactions as stemming from the fact she’s a black woman who was unafraid to express her feelings on the court.
“The world just got a full taste of black womanhood,” Packnett tweeted. “Can’t win squarely. Can’t lose squarely. Can’t be on top at the same time. Can’t be emotional in public.”
“You’ve also witnessed what happens when black women-yes BLACK-women dare stand up for themselves,” she added. “Serena rightfully defended herself but stuff is already saying she ‘exploded.’”
Amid the confusion and turmoil that marked the match’s final minutes, Williams made a point of hugging Osaka after an unreturnable serve secured the 20-year-old the Open trophy. And both women proceeded to show a united front.
During the trophy ceremony, the crowd showed their intense displeasure with Ramos’ rulings by booing loudly. But Williams, 36, wrapped an arm around Osaka, who was crying, and quieted the crowd.
“She played well and this is her first Grand Slam,” Williams told the fans. “Let’s make this the best moment we can, we’ll get through it. Let’s give everyone credit where credit’s due. Let’s not boo anymore. We’re going to get through this. Let’s stay positive. Congratulations, Naomi. No more booing!”
At the post-match press conference, reporters peppered Osaka with questions about the Williams-Ramos confrontation, but the budding tennis star had nothing to say about it, insisting she couldn’t see or hear what was going on.
Instead, Osaka offered praise for her idol.
“I don’t know what happened on the court, so, for me, I’m always going to remember the Serena that I love,” Osaka said. “It doesn’t change anything for me. She was really nice to me at the net and on the podium, so I don’t really see what would change [that].”
Williams, at her press conference, touted Osaka’s skill while defending her choice to stick up for herself during the match.
“I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things,” she told reporters. “I’m here fighting for women’s rights and women’s equality... and for me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist” reaction.
“The fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and wants to express themselves and they want to be a strong woman and they’re going to be allowed to that because of today,” Williams continued. “Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.”