What did this weekend’s events indicate about the state of the game of tennis?
We know for sure . . .
- Serena Williams lost the U.S. Open final to Naomi Osaka, and the umpire, Carlos Rosa, charged Williams with three code violations.
- The first violation came when Rosa spotted Williams’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, cheating by giving her signs with his hands. We know Mouratoglou cheated because the coach admitted it in a post-match interview.
- Williams vociferously asserted that she does not cheat and that it would be basically unthinkable for her to do so because she has a young daughter she’d like to raise properly.
- Williams called Rosa a “thief” at 3-4 in the second set. We all heard that on the TV broadcast. Coming on the heels of the point penalty she’d received for smashing a racquet earlier in the match, the umpire docked her a game in accordance with what he asserted was a violation of policy.
We don’t know for sure . . .
- If Williams utilized the coaching Mouratoglou tried to give her. She did come in to the net more after his gestures urged such a strategy, but Williams is also a savvy player who could certainly have thought to adopt those tactics on her own.
- What has gone on in private discussions between her and her coach. Williams said post-match, “We have never discussed signals,” implying she neither told him not to coach her with hand signals nor instructed him to do so.
- If Rosa were motivated by overt or underlying sexist tendencies to make the calls he did against Williams. Many, including Williams herself, have asserted that was the case and that women are treated differently than men by officials. But knowing what’s in a person’s mind is difficult. He could also have simply made a mistake (if you believe the calls were the wrong ones). Even if one believes tennis officials have demonstrated a pattern of behavior unfair to women, it doesn’t mean that sexist motivations existed in this particular case (it doesn’t mean they did not, either).
I don’t know enough to know whether or not a pattern of misogyny pervades tennis officiating. Many on the tour are much closer to it than I am. So I don’t know if I agree with Williams on that point because I don’t have enough information. But I do agree with her point that refraining from cheating sets the right example for young children. And if she wants any good to come from this ugly incident, she should consider making that her focal point moving forward.
Tennis has long had an honor code. In lower-level matches, where one calls one’s own lines, the rule has traditionally been that if you’re not certain your opponent’s ball landed out, you give him or her the benefit of the doubt and call it in.
Unfortunately, reports I get from the youth tennis ranks where I have relatives competing indicate today’s coaches may be lagging in teaching ethics along with forehands and backhands. In addition to outright cheating by calling good shots long or wide, young players engage in questionable gamesmanship. They will, for instance, question their opponents’ calls incessantly, hoping to sow indecision later on a crucial point. Way too many kids don’t get taught right from wrong by their coaches and parents.
Mouratoglou justified his behavior by claiming that every other coach does the same thing. What he basically was saying was that every coach sets a bad example for Williams’s daughter. Many believe the rule against coaching should be changed. I don’t necessarily have a strong opinion one way or the other about whether the rule is a good one. We did see from Williams’s fervent outburst that she thought a violation of the existing rule constituted cheating, and that playing by the rules as they exist constitutes an important part of modeling proper behavior for her child.
So that brings us to what Serena should do now. Firstly, if she and Mouratoglou have truly never discussed hand signals, they should do so now and establish that nobody who coaches Serena Williams is to engage in cheating ever again.
Secondly, she should embark on a dual campaign. Its aims:
- Encourage young players to always give their opponents the benefit of the doubt, to always play by the rules, and to never engage in gamesmanship on the court. Make sure the next generation of coaches and players is better ethically than this one, so your coach won’t feel like he needs to cheat for you to win. And so everyone’s daughters (and sons) can have admirable role models.
- Push officials at all levels to call matches uniformly. Does that mean a committee to look at consistency in officiating and the rules themselves, kind of like Brendan Shanahan did with hockey in 2004? If you can get every official to call the game the same way for every competitor, and be evaluated by the way they do so, you can reduce the ability of a sexist to impact a particular gender.
Can Williams do it? Absolutely. Did you see how many commercials featured her during the tournament? She has a public forum virtually unmatched in the history of her sport. If her shoe company can back a campaign showcasing a lightning-rod quarterback/activist, big companies can surely get behind a high-profile effort to radically change the game at all levels for the better.
Serena Williams occupies a significant place in tennis history. And she’s overcome a difficult childbirth to insert herself back into the sport’s present as she’s made consecutive Grand Slam finals. Now would be a perfect time for her to extend her greatness into tennis’s future.