Sexism and racism exist in every area of life and sport is no different. In fact, the sporting world often sees prejudice revealed most clearly, one need look no further than the case of Colin Kaepernick in the NFL and Mesut Ozil and the German national side for evidence of that. And as the past few weeks have revealed in all too startling detail, tennis is no different, as three controversies have emerged to overshadow the on-court action at the US Open.
Perhaps tellingly, two have directly involved Serena Williams, surely the most prominent female athlete in the world and amongst the most prominent African American. These controversies stretched far beyond the realms of the tennis world, having an impact on global discourse that the sport rarely achieves. And an impact that should provide a wake up call for a sport that has perhaps been guilty of resting on laurels it may not have even earned.
When French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli proffered his opinion on the catsuit that Serena Williams wore at this year’s Roland Garros, one suspects he did not imagine that it would become a global news story. But that is exactly what happened as much of the world reacted with furious indignation to his suggestion that Williams’ had failed to respect the game by wearing such attire.
Though the coverage did reach fairly ludicrous levels. Suggestions, for example, that Williams’ US Open outfit, which featured a tutu, was some sort of coded message to the ‘man’ seemed rather divorced from the reality of the tennis world. Williams certainly did not seem eager to dwell on the controversy, and behaving with the decorum she so often displays, she put it behind her in a light-hearted press conference.
But the furore did not die down, and nor should it have done. There was nothing particularly remarkable about Williams’ attire, and though she was forgiving of Giudicelli, she would have been well within her rights not to be. There are many more equipped than I to write at length on the policing of female and black bodies by traditionally white spaces, but it seems certain that this was another example of that, even if a subconscious one.
The sport’s case was not helped by the decision only a few days later at the US Open to give French player Alize Cornet a code violation for changing her shirt on court. The double standard there was not hard to locate with the hot and humid conditions having led to many male players sitting shirtless courtside. To the credit of the US Open, they immediately amended their rules and apologised to Cornet, but again attracted criticism from all corners.
A more complicated issue
The most recent of the controversies, and the only one to have a direct impact on and off the court, came in the final when Serena Williams was given three code violations by chair umpire Carlos Ramos. The first was a warning for coaching, the second a point penalty for a racquet smash and the third a game penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct after a lengthy and heated discussion with Ramos in which she called him a thief.
There can be no doubt that Ramos was acting within the rules when he penalised Williams with each code violation. But why he chose to do so has come under scrutiny with accusations of racism and sexism being made towards him. If there is any credence in such accusations, then they are to be found in his initial decision to issue a code violation for coaching. It is a poorly and inconsistently enforced rule and Ramos might have done better to let it pass or offer a soft warning.
That has never been Ramos’ style as an umpire, however, and one wonders if perhaps it is his fellow umpires who are at fault for their failure to enforce the rules consistently. But Williams, and the many voices on social media and elsewhere, were most incensed by his decision to give a game penalty to Williams for verbal abuse of an umpire. It has been widely pointed out that many male tennis players had said far worse to an umpire without receiving the same punishment.
Which is true, but it also fails to account for how code violations work on court. It has been argued that male players are able to rant at umpires without receiving a code violation, but whilst there are doubtless examples of this, it would be misleading to suggest that it is the norm. In most cases, had a male player spoken to an umpire in the manner and for the length of time that Williams did, they would have received the same code violation that she did.
They most likely would not have received a game penalty, but Williams was not penalised with a game penalty because she called Ramos a thief. Rather, it was because it was her third code violation and the cost of that is always a game penalty. For example, the same racquet smash that cost Williams a point penalty, cost Grigor Dimitrov a game penalty in the final in Istanbul two years ago because it was the third time that he had received a code violation in that match.
Not hiding behind the rules
For the reasons stated above, there can be no doubt that Ramos acted within the rules in everything he did, which rather undermines the argument that Williams had been singled out for mistreatment by him. In that instance, there were no real examples of a double standard to be found, though Williams, who has had her problems with the officiating at the US Open in the past, perhaps understandably did not agree.
In the midst of a Grand Slam final, with emotions running high, her loss of temper is entirely understandable. And the coverage of it by many organisations does reveal a double standard in how female athletes are treated by the media. But more importantly, just because Ramos was not guilty of sexism or racism, does not absolve the sport of its failings. It is inconsistent, and beyond giving men and women equal pay at the Majors, it has done little to redress the inequalities that plague it.
For though there is little substance to the accusations against Ramos, there is a great deal behind criticism of the events last month. And they are hardly the sport’s only failings. At the Australian Open, for example, a show court still bears the name of a virulent homophobe. But, where there is reason to be hopeful is that these debates are being had. Change and growth cannot occur without light. And that is at last being shone on the double standards in the tennis world.