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Four Days Later, Re-Assessing the Serena-Ramos Controversy

Jon Wertheim

I waver here between trying to capture the tennis vox populi on the one hand and, on the other, trying to steer the week’s tennis talk to a new direction.

To the first point, we were flooded—predictably—with Serena emails. To the latter point, this has come at the expense of plenty of other stories, not least the triumphs of Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic. I have half a mind to zig where the world zags, and jump right to questions about Djokovic’s underrated slice and whether Osaka can win on the faster courts of Australia and whether Jack Sock might drop singles for doubles.

But here’s what I’m thinking: this week we’ll write more about the fallout from Saturday. Then next week we’ll get back to tennis and mention the Open not at all.

So...

Here are quick thoughts trying to incorporate as many of your points as possible.

• Can we lop off the extremists and the bullies? Opinions here are still astonishingly divided. Even within tennis, Martina Navratilova does not share the same POV as Billie Jean King. Andy Roddick does not share the same view as a current top-10 player. The Times of London wants Serena to apologize. The Independent believes Serena has been wronged and this is of a piece with broader discrimination. The head of Coca Cola’s global sponsorships takes one stand. NOW takes altogether different approach.

This is healthy. Debate requires us to engage and consider views that aren't ours. It asks us to fit scenarios in broader contexts and filter them through various prisms. And the answers are not binary. There are of factors here and it’s possible that multiple parties acted badly. You should be able to find fault—and virtue—with multiple parties. You should be able to absolve Serena without being a “typical American liberal apologist snowflake.” You should be able to condemn her without subjecting yourself to charges of racism and sexism. Plenty of angles. Plenty of blame to go around, unfortunately. And, like most complex people and complex issues, it’s too simplistic—to the great dismay of social media—to go absolutist.

• Be careful with your data. The notion that men were fined more often and more money than women at the U.S. Open—as they are at virtually every Slam—cuts both ways. Does this counter charges of sexism? Or does this show men are more prone to outbursts, so the reaction to Serena was all the more unwarranted? When you mention that Serena has made less than Novak Djokovic for her career despite winning almost twice as many Slams, does that confirm tennis’ systemic sexism? Or impugn the WTA, since both genders are paid equally at Slams?

• Be careful with your analogies. If false equivalencies were forehands, we have thousands of del Potros out there.

• That Serena was so unclear about the rules makes for a fascinating bit of character insight. Neither good nor bad, just revealing.

• I still say this could have been avoided if the chair had first said, “I am not accusing you of cheating. It’s your coach who was gesticulating. Unfortunately it’s a coaching violation not a ‘receiving coaching violation.’ So you are bearing the penalty for his actions.” Serena seemed genuinely affronted by the idea that her integrity was being questioned. It wasn’t. And this should have been articulated. Sometimes tennis is a glorious global village. Other times it is a Tower of Babel, with two people speaking past each other.

• Serena’s suggestion that Ramos never be allowed to oversee one of her matches again has been overlooked. But to me, this was an ugly bit of entitlement, worse than the mildly insulting “thief.”

• I struggle with how much weight and valence to give to history. Serena has a history of regrettable exchanges with officials at the U.S. Open. In one case, she was clearly wronged. In another, she was unequivocally wrong. Yes, these incidents were 14, nine and seven years ago, respectively. But you wonder if this history—in big matches; at the U.S. Open—didn't factor in, both from her perspective (”here we go again”) and that of Ramos (“here she goes again.”)

• I heard this Tuesday from the Williams family confidante. Two years ago, Ramos and Venus Williams had a run in over coaching.

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Like her sister, Venus declared that any charges of coaching were bogus because she does not cheat and doesn’t look at her box. It appears as though Ramos conceded this and did not give Venus a formal warning. Serena was in the identical situation on Saturday and protested on similar grounds. Ramos responded, “ I know that, too.” Serena was then under the impression that—as with Venus—this meant that her warning had been rescinded. In fact, it was not. Says my source: “ if Serena knew she had that warning, she never would’ve cracked her racket.” Which is to say that this whole situation owes to misunderstanding as much as anything else.

• Good for Patrick Mouratoglou for owning up to coaching. But “everyone does it” is not an honorable defense, nor is enumerating other culprits. And tennis authorities should be able to eject the coach from the stadium; not capitulate and legalize the bad behavior.

• We speak often of how humans act different in conditions of stress and arousal—pressure, competition, sexual arousal—and we should consider this when making judgments. I’ll pick on Andy Roddick, an all-time solid and admirable guy who sometimes morphed into someone totally different under the stress of playing. So it is that we give players much leeway for their behavior during play, especially in an individual sport. Especially in the biggest moments. But we must extend the same courtesy to Ramos.

• Again, my big gripe about Ramos: the third whistle. Anyone who follows tennis closely knows that the chair has great discretion. I’ve heard top players direct the most vile invective toward the chair. From a top (male) player: “If you want someone to eff, eff your wife and stop effing me.” What happened? The chair covered the mic with his hand and told the player sternly that if this continued, he’d be forced to issue a code violation. The player retreated. At 4-3 Ramos should have issued a soft warning, “If you don’t stop, I will be forced to call it, which will dock you a game.” He either diffuses the situation or if Serena continues her tirade, at least he has cover. Sometimes you swallow the whistle. Going right to the rulebook was wrong. And it sets a crazy precedent. Mark my words: at a future event, a star is going to lose his or her (likely his) mud, calling the chair a profane name and get a mild scolding. And this controversy will flare up again. “Serena said ‘thief’ and got docked a game. Player X said, ‘asshole’ and got nothing.”

• Josh Levin made this point this point nicely in Slate. “She is a role model as an athlete and as a working parent, and should be celebrated as such. That being said, the notion that she couldn’t have possibly broken a rule because she has a daughter seems … misguided. Parents break rules all the time. Williams doesn’t cheat at tennis because she doesn’t cheat at tennis. Her daughter has nothing to do with it.

• I was surprised by the many of you who took issue with USTA president Katrina Adams’s statement, both on the court— “Perhaps it’s not the finish we were looking for today,”—and in her “bizarre” and “narcissistic” statement an hour or so later. I agree that the personalization was especially weird and perhaps no statement would have been the better strategy. But I’d urge you to cut Katrina slack. She is to be commended for her service, both in practice and in optics. (The kneejerk charges that “tennis is a racist sport” are weakened when the double-term president of a governing body is an African-American woman.) Adams did not distinguish herself over the weekend. But that should not take away from her other achievements.

• Perhaps we wait for passions to cool. But don’t wait too long before memories fade—someone needs to do an oral history of Saturday. Not just on the court but in the tunnels afterward.

Next week, we’re back to tennis...