Martina Navratilova: Let's face it, Serena Williams deserved to be penalized for that blow-up with the umpire

Three things can be, and are, true about Saturday night’s unpleasantness.

1. Serena is the greatest women’s player of all time.
2. Penalizing someone a full game in a championship match is an awfully draconian penalty, not unlike a team being awarded a touchdown on a penalty in the second half of the Super Bowl.
3. As gracious as Serena was after the match towards the winner, Naomi Osaka, her eruption at the ump completely ruined that kid’s moment. This was her first Grand Slam title, defeating the world’s greatest player in front of a crowd that was heavily against her, and the championship ceremony ended up in a flood of boos because the crowd took Williams’s side against the umpire. She fulfilled a lifelong dream, playing spectacularly and beating her idol in the process, and was relegated to a footnote at best and villain at worst because of the Williams drama. Grotesque.

Now here comes no less than Martina Navratilova to challenge the second point. Sure, a full game is a weirdly stiff penalty, says Martina. But under the circumstances, what was the ump supposed to do?

It was a few games later when matters really escalated. Williams lost her serve at 3-1 up and demolished her racket — an automatic code violation that, because it came on top of an earlier warning [for illegal coaching], resulted in the automatic loss of one point.

Ms. Williams opted to argue about this: She insisted that she didn’t cheat, she wasn’t coached, and therefore she shouldn’t have been docked. But it doesn’t matter whether she knew she was receiving coaching. She was being coached, as Mr. Mouratoglou admitted after the match, and whether she knew it or not is moot. So at this stage, she had been given a warning — one that couldn’t be dismissed retroactively — and had smashed her racket, an automatic violation. Mr. Ramos, effectively, had no choice but to dock her a point.

A still angry Williams later called Ramos, the umpire, a “thief.” That’s when he slapped her with a penalty of a full game. Would a man have been penalized for such insolence? Hard to say, says Martina, but that’s 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. In fact, this is the sort of behavior that no one should be engaging in on the court. There have been many times when I was playing that I wanted to break my racket into a thousand pieces. Then I thought about the kids watching. And I grudgingly held on to that racket.

What lesson did “the kids watching” draw from Serena’s tirade? That the ump was a thief? That tennis judging is sexist? Or that it’s okay to make it all about you when your opponent’s on the brink of stealing your spotlight?

Another thing, notes Jonathan Last. Historically, Williams’s temper has been at its worst when she’s on the brink of a major defeat. That’s human nature, perhaps — who’d care about a bad call when you’re on the way to winning? — but it also smells of sour grapes, a way to shift blame for one’s performance to unfairness by the judges.

Serena has a history of lashing out in big matches when she’s getting beaten by inferior players. In 2009, Serena was getting worked by Kim Clijsters in the semis at the U.S. Open when she got called for a foot fault—again, the call itself was correct. She exploded in a tirade against the (female) line judge that included a physical threat. It has to be seen to be believed…

In the 2011 finals at the U.S. Open, Serena was getting beat by Sam Stosur when she yelled in the middle of a point. The chair umpire called interference—again, correctly—and Serena exploded at her, saying “Aren’t you the one who screwed me over last time? Are you coming after me? That is totally not cool . . . Don’t even look at me. You’re a hater. You’re very unattractive inside.”

On Saturday night, on what was effectively home court for an American, with the entire country pulling for the 36-year-old GOAT to come all the way back from maternity leave and win a record seventh U.S. Open, she found herself on the brink of losing in straight sets to a 20-year-old who’d never won a single major. So she lost her temper again and suddenly Osaka’s first Grand Slam win passed into history as the Serena Meltdown Match. It’s worth noting too that the umpire, Carlos Ramos, is well respected within the sport per analyst Mary Carillo. “At her very best — and she is very often at her very best — I respect and admire Serena beyond measure,” said Carillo afterward, “but at her very worst, as she was on this night, she acts like a bully.” What’s left to say?

Here’s the meltdown followed by Osaka belatedly enjoying her moment in the sun on the “Today” show. Exit quotation: “I felt a little bit sad because I wasn’t really sure if they were booing at me, or if it wasn’t the outcome that they wanted.”

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