NYT to Serena: Actually, men have it worse on penalties

Does a double standard exist in Grand Slam officiating? Serena Williams accused a judge at the US Open and the tennis world in general of being tougher on women who complain about calls on the court than on men. The New York Times rather bravely decided to go to the data, and reports that the opposite is true — that men draw a lot more penalties than women do.

But does this miss the point?

Serena Williams argued that she was subject to a double standard when she was cited for verbal abuse by the chair umpire Carlos Ramos during the United States Open women’s final last Saturday.

“There are men out here who do a lot worse than me, but because I’m a woman you are going to take this away from me?” she protested to Brian Earley, the tournament referee. “That is not right.”

Each situation should be evaluated on its own merits, but according to data compiled by officials at Grand Slam tournaments for the past 20 years, men are penalized more often for verbal abuse.

Those figures, obtained by The New York Times, show that from 1998 to 2018 at the four Grand Slam events, men have been fined for misbehavior with much more frequency than women with one significant exception: coaching violations.

That, of course, was the catalyst for the Williams controversy as she was losing to Naomi Osaka in the US Open final. The judge saw her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, flashing her signals from the stands, which is a violation whether Williams saw it or not. (Mouratoglou admitted he’d been signaling her from the stands but claimed that everyone does it.) In some tournaments, that’s not entirely against the rules, but it is at the US Open, and Ramos properly issued a warning for it. That enraged Williams, and her reactions started the process by which Williams ended up losing a point and a game for racket abuse and verbal abuse, respectively.

The data provided by the NYT gives us much more context for Williams’ complaint, but it doesn’t actually settle the question. There are two potential variables for which these numbers don’t account. The first variable is how often men and women actually commit these violations, rather than how often they get called on them. To put it another way: do men get flagged more because they actually behave a lot worse than women do on the court? That requires subjective analysis for which I’m unqualified (since I stopped watching tennis after growing tired of John McEnroe’s constant on-court whining), but my inexpert impression is that men act out on court far more than women do. YMMV, but if my impression ends up being correct, then the data provided by the NYT is an indication of something other than a double standard favoring women.

The second variable comes a lot closer to Williams’ actual complaint. Do judges have a lower threshold for calling penalties on women than they do for men? The data would tend to suggest not, but that’s only if you believe that men and women behave the same on court. The biggest complaint in the Williams controversy was that Ramos called the third penalty — which cost Williams a game — for being called a “thief.” Williams objects to that call on the basis that men say a lot worse on court and don’t get penalized. This also requires subjective analysis and a lot more study, but it’s at least possible that men are so badly behaved on court that judges have a higher threshold for calling penalties just to keep matches moving along. That would tend to create a double standard disfavoring women when penalties are called, or at least the impression of such a double standard.

None of this lets Williams off the hook. Her coach admittedly violated the first rule, and Williams dug her own grave by melting down over the warning. As the Times notes, Grand Slam rules against verbal abuse — the penalty that cost her a game — includes on-court rhetoric that “implies dishonesty or is derogatory, insulting or otherwise abusive.” Calling Ramos a “thief” and a “liar” explicitly violates that rule, and Ramos let Williams vent for quite some time before finally imposing the penalty.

However, the data alone doesn’t negate Williams’ broader challenge either, even if it does make it more difficult to establish. The best path forward is one offered by Martina Navratilova:

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.

Exactly. Men may engage more in it, or maybe women get flagged more in equivalent situations, but that’s beside the point. Play by the rules and stop whining, and this issue won’t matter much at all.