6-2 6-4. A scoreline that at once tells us everything and nothing about the US Open final won by Naomi Osaka and lost by Serena Williams. Everything because, in the end, no amount of drama can take away from the reality that Osaka played one of the best matches of her life to lift the biggest title of her career. She has stepped forth from the relative obscurity she once inhabited into the world of a Grand Slam champion. She has walked beside giants before, but now she will do so as their equal.
But, for all that, what happened in the final will live long in the memory for reasons other than the quality of the tennis and Osaka’s victory. The disagreement between Williams and umpire Carlos Ramos took centre-stage on the night and it is inevitable that it will continue to do so as the fallout is digested and dissected over the coming days and weeks. That will likely, alas, detract from Osaka’s win, but one can only hope that the Japanese can remember the moments of joy on a difficult night.
A code violation and warning for coaching was certainly not a call anyone expected the chair umpire to make. Like many of tennis’ rules, its enforcement is inconsistent and the direction Patrick Mouratoglou was giving Williams by way of hand signals from her box was no more egregious a violation of that rule than is often seen. Williams’ initial response to the call was calm and composed, she simply informed Ramos that she did not cheat and would rather lose than do so.
The incident, which came early in the second set, would likely have been all but forgotten had Williams not thereafter in frustration smashed her racquet in the sixth game of the set. As it was her second code violation, Williams was given a point penalty, to her utter fury. Her complaints, during which she demanded an apology from Ramos, told him he would never umpire on her matches again and called him a liar and a thief, led to a third code violation from the chair, at the cost of a game.
The debate about Ramos’ actions seems certain to continue for sometime. One may rightly question whether a Grand Slam final was the right moment to enforce a mostly ignored rule. But, if Ramos felt that Williams was gaining an unfair advantage from Mouratoglou, he was surely right to intervene. In the giving of a point penalty for a racquet smash, the rules are clear and Ramos had no choice. But it was his decision to award a game penalty that was most controversial.
Ultimately, however, it was the correct one. Calling him a thief which was what tipped the balance and led to the code violation, may not at first glance seem like sufficient reason to award a code violation. As many have pointed out, far worse has been said to the umpires by other players, and there have been allegations of sexism in the decision to penalise Williams. But when the incident is viewed in its entirety, one should see that Ramos had little choice.
Williams’ anger was understandable. Though a code violation for coaching is not actually about a player’s actions, it is the player that is punished. And she lost her temper, understandably given the situation and what she was trying to achieve. But she has given so much to the sport that her lapse should be forgiven. In such a cauldron of noise, it is hardly surprising that she did lose her temper and before criticising one should do their best to imagine themselves in her position.
Any talk of a legacy tarnished is both unfair and slightly ridiculous. But that does not change the fact that Williams did become angry and direct that anger at the umpire in such a way as to make action on his part inevitable. Had he not done so, his authority would have been completely undermined. It is worth noting that he let Williams vent at him calmly for sometime before stepping in with a third code violation. He acted with the utmost professionalism and deserves commendation for that.
Compassion at the death
What he received was condemnation. And a lot of it as the crowd made their feelings known. After the award of the game penalty the tournament referee came onto court to discuss the matter with an emotional Williams, who complained of the unfairness of the situation. Though the match continued, it was, in effect, over and Osaka wrapped it up two games later. But though the match had ended, the drama had not, in large part because of the crowd.
In the past they have stepped over the grounds of what is acceptable. Their behaviour in 2015 men’s final is one example. But their actions here went beyond anything they had done before. Djokovic, the target of their scorn three years ago, though treated most unfairly, was already a multiple Grand Slam champion, well-equipped to deal with their hostility, however out of place it was. Osaka, who had just won her first Major, deserved far better than the storm of jeers that met the beginning of the trophy presentation.
In short, and not for the first time, the behaviour of the crowd was a disgrace. But Osaka and Williams, in a marked contrast, both conducted themselves with the utmost dignity. Williams, aware of what Osaka was going through, implored the crowd to cease their booing whilst comforting her opponent despite the crushing disappointment of what had just happened. For Osaka, as many have pointed out, what should have been amongst the best moments of her career has been irreparably tarnished.
That the emotion of it all was overwhelming could be seen from the tears rolling down her cheeks and the look of sadness on her face. Not the usual response to a maiden Grand Slam win. But like Williams, in her words and her actions in the aftermath of the match she was a great credit to herself and to the sport she so ably represents. Both women moved swiftly from the heat of battle to supporting each other in a time of great difficulty and both deserve great praise for that.
Unfortunately for Osaka, the narrative of this match will probably now never be just about the tennis. But if that is so, then let it be a story of compassion shown in pain, of grace in defeat, and of humility in victory. Remember that before you look back at a dispute between a player and umpire and you will be doing justice to the champions of the night. Make that choice, and the US Open women’s final of 2018 can be remembered for what it truly was. And that is a victory for decency.
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