Serena Williams is fighting the 'system of sexism' in tennis and here's why it matters

WATCH: Serena Williams calls chair umpire 'thief' in outburst during US Open final which she later defended.

It’s been a whirlwind of a weekend for tennis superstar Serena Williams.

On Sunday, Williams was fined USD$17,000 for a three-code violation during her loss to Japan’s Naomi Osaka in the U.S. Open final. The tournament’s referee fined Williams $10,000 for “verbal abuse” of the chair umpire Carlos Ramos, $4,000 for being warned for coaching and $3,000 for breaking her racket during the game.

During the game, Williams also asked Ramos to apologize to her after he warned her of coaching. “I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose. I’m just letting you know,” she said. “I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her. I’ve never cheated, and you owe me an apology.”

READ MORE: Serena Williams gains support of Women’s Tennis Association amid sexism claims

She went on to call Ramos a “thief” and pointed out how he would’ve never taken a game from a man for calling him the same word, a gesture to the sport’s double standards. “But I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things.

“I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff. For me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark.”

A history of double standards

Since the incident, Williams has been described as having a “meltdown” and was reduced to an “angry black woman” trope. She was even caricatured in a cartoon with exaggerated lips and other facial features, a callback to racist cartoons of the past.

But as Williams’ supporters over this short time period have pointed out, this incident says a lot about being a woman in tennis.

WATCH: U.S. Open: Serena Williams reignites debates on sexism and sportsmanship

On Sunday, former tennis player and Women’s Tennis Association founder Billie Jean King wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, noting Williams is treated differently than male athletes.

“Women are treated differently in most arenas of life. This is especially true for women of colour. And what played out on the court yesterday happens far too often. It happens in sports, in the office and in public service. Ultimately, a woman was penalized for standing up for herself. A woman faced down sexism, and the match went on,” she wrote.


Serena Williams argues with umpire Carlos Ramos during her Women’s Singles finals match against Naomi Osaka of Japan on Day 13 of the 2018 U.S. Open. Getty Images

Others, like writer and activist Lily Herman, pointed out how male tennis players in the past are almost celebrated for their antics with umpires during games.

“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,” the piece in Refinery 29 noted. “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 behaviour’ at previous U.S. Opens but is still actively giving commentary on the sport.”

WATCH: Social media reacts to ‘racist’ cartoon of Serena Williams

But not all saw Williams’ actions to be helpful for women in the sport. Former tennis champion Martina Navratilova wrote in the New York Times Williams shouldn’t have reacted the way she did. 

“It’s difficult to know, and debatable, whether Ms. Williams could have gotten away with calling the umpire a thief if she were a male player. But to focus on that, I think, is missing the point. If, in fact, the guys are treated with a different measuring stick for the same transgressions, this needs to be thoroughly examined and must be fixed. But we cannot measure ourselves by what we think we should also be able to get away with.”

READ MORE: Serena Williams fined $17,000 for violating U.S. Open rules

Speaking up for women in sports

Sports writer Vivek Jacob told Global News Williams doesn’t shy away from these double standards either. “Williams has made it known just how often she gets drug tested but it doesn’t appear that the Big 3 on the men’s side are tested as frequently,” he said. “There is the uncalled-for issue that the French Open organizers took with her outfit this year and also McEnroe stating that she couldn’t be considered the greatest tennis player of all time because she wouldn’t stand a chance against the top men.”

There was also an incident in 2015 at the Australian Open where she was asked to twirl after winning a match.

“It’s quite possible that displays of anger from men have become normalized and so barring an extreme reaction, umpires don’t feel the need to punish them,” he continued. “Players such as McEnroe, Nastase and Nick Kyrgios more recently have certainly been punished for their outbursts, but it’s the extent to which they’re allowed to express themselves that seems to be the difference.”


Serena Williamsd during the U.S. Open. Getty Images

Culture writer and TV producer Kathleen Newman-Bremang of Toronto told Global News another example of double standards was when France tennis player Alize Cornet get penalized for taking her shirt off during a match and when Serbian tennis player Novac Djokavic did the same thing, he wasn’t reprimanded. But she added a lot of commentary for Williams boils down to race.

“There’s also attention on it because the most famous, greatest athlete in tennis is a black woman. You can’t divorce her blackness or her womanhood from her career. She’s also standing up for herself to make things easier for the players who come after her. Serena’s voice is why there is so much attention on it. She’s fighting the system of sexism in tennis.”

‘As a black woman, I’m tired’

Newman-Bremang, who has also been watching Williams play for 20 years, explained why seeing social media commentary on Williams’ “angry meltdown” or the cartoon is infuriating.

“As a black woman, I’m tired,” she continued. “It’s just a reminder that no matter how rich or famous or talented you are, the world still sees a black woman that they can disrespect. We should act a certain way or else… the fact is that when male athletes stand up for themselves during games or matches, it’s never called a ‘meltdown.'”

READ MORE: Serena Williams defends calling U.S. Open ref a ‘thief,’ accuses him of sexism

Newman-Bremang added if black women speak up, they are called out for being angry, but what Williams did should be embraced.

“The fact that Serena Williams demanded an apology from a man in a position of power over her felt like an empowering moment for all the black women who have been silenced in the workplace or felt that they couldn’t speak up for themselves. It was also so frustrating to see Naomi, also a black woman, robbed of her moment to shine because of this.”


Serena Williams of USA celebrates after defeating Anastasija Sevastova (not seen) of Latvia during US Open 2018 Women’s singles semi-finals match on September 6. Getty Images.

Jacob said looking at this from a game perspective, her “outburst” is still significant.

WATCH: U.S. Open men’s champion says umpire ‘should not have pushed Serena to the limit’ in final

“She was dared to take the penalties and keep quiet about it, and she didn’t,” he said. “Her outburst should force the sport to look at its rules regarding both coaching during a match and the subjectivity regarding verbal abuse directed towards an umpire in a serious way. As far as cultural impact is concerned, I think it encourages more women to stand up for what they believe is right, no matter the stage or potential backlash.”

— With files from The Associated Press

arti.patel@globalnews.ca

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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