Serena Williams. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

The U.S., and seemingly much of the planet, is so polarized that it appears to have crept into the world of professional tennis. I’m referring to the recent U.S. Open Women’s Final that pitted 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, 37 born on September 26th and considered the greatest female player in history and Japan’s Naomi Osaka, 20, the daughter of a Haitian-American father and Japanese mother, playing in her very first major final.

The match ended with such controversy on subjects ranging from sexism, racism, cheating and integrity, that it’s still reverberating over a week later. (It’s even been covered by the Wall Street Journal, not normally known to follow the comings and goings of tennis.)

For those unfamiliar with the event, here it is in a nutshell. If Serena had won she’d have tied the all-time record of Grand Slam titles with 24. By winning the $3.7 million prize money, Naomi exceeded her entire earnings to date. Suffice it to say, a lot was on the line.

After Osaka decidedly won the first set (6-2) the firestorm began. It occurred when veteran chair umpire Carlos Ramos gave Williams a warning for “coaching.” I should note tennis may be the only sport that forbids coaching during a match, even from the stands via hand signals. And yet it goes on all the time and rarely, if ever, is penalized. But Ramos saw fit to do so and Serena threw a fit. (That said, Serena may have been justified.)

Infuriated, Serena walked over to Ramos and said she was insulted he was accusing her of cheating. “I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose,” she proclaimed as now the crowd was getting deeply into the controversy. Shortly thereafter, with her frustration boiling, Serena slammed her racket to the ground thoroughly destroying it. Yikes!

Ramos immediately cited Serena for “racket abuse,” and assessed a point deduction. The next conduct violation would come with a game penalty. (And if there was another, Serena would be defaulted.) The crowd was fully engaged and Serena was fully enraged, meanwhile poor Naomi was understandably overwhelmed.

With the second set score 4-3 Osaka, Williams called Ramos a “thief.” He proceeded to assess her a third code violation for “verbal abuse.” The packed crowd seemed primarily sympathetic to Serena’s plight. (Or maybe they just wanted to see a dramatic 3rd set.)

Osaka was due to serve at 4-3 providing a possible opportunity for Serena to break and even the set. But this time the violation resulted in a game penalty against Serena. (Ouch!) That put young Osaka up 5-3 and one game away from the championship.

Serena held her serve and, with the score 5-4, Naomi brilliantly served out the match and was the U.S. Open champ for 2018. However, the post-match trophy presentations were anything but normal.

First off, instead of receiving the typical honor for umpiring the match, Ramos was escorted off the court. The chorus of boos threatened to ruin the entire ceremony for Osaka whose tears were streaming. That’s when Serena asked the crowd to refrain and graciously put her arm around Naomi to comfort the young champion.

In the post-match press conference, an emotional and still angry Serena noted that male players had called umpires far worse than “thief” and never suffered a game penalty. She also made reference to a female player who was penalized in this Open whereas a man would never be. (The player discovered her shirt was on backwards, took it off momentarily revealing a sports bra and hurriedly put the shirt on correctly but was still given a violation.)

After the match, opinions came flooding in. Tennis legend and activist extraordinaire, Billy Jean King, fully supported Serena and encouraged her to keep fighting for women’s rights. Beloved sportscaster Mary Carillo, commented, “On this one, Serena blew it.” (Though she still adamantly admires and loves Serena.)

Also somewhat critical of Serena, was legendary tennis coach and analyst Brad Gilbert. On the other hand, Gilbert felt, given the occasion, that Ramos should have told Williams “this will be your last warning.”

Former Santa Monica resident and 22-time Grand Slam doubles winner, Pam Shriver revealed that Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, was indeed coaching, wanting Williams to move to the net more. However, Shriver also noted that “Just about everybody does it.” Many are now questioning why the rule even exists.

Reportedly worth $200 million, Serena was fined $17,000 for the three code violations. Meanwhile, with strong arguments on both sides, the controversy continues. Unfortunately, Fox TV owner, Rupert Murdoch’s News Mercury in Australia, ran an undeniably racist cartoon looking right out of the Jim Crow era, mocking Serena. #Sad. Apparently, the tennis world is no different than the rest of the world. Stay tuned.

Jack Neworth also writes Laughing Matters, which has appeared every Friday for the past twelve years. He can be reached at:

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