The day after one of the most embarrassing days in the history of the U.S. Open, the USTA needed to go into full-mode damage control.
Serena Williams, the most important player in the game, leveled some serious charges against chair umpire Carlos Ramos on Saturday after he handed her three violations in the second set of her loss to Naomi Osaka in the women’s final. Williams then ignited a Twitter firestorm and laid the seeds for a national conversation when she accused Ramos of sexism, saying she wouldn’t have been treated the same way if she were a man.
As fans, fellow tennis stars and journalists rushed into the debate, the USTA might have thought of doing something to back up a legendary player who has done so much for the game. Instead, it chose to back up an overly officious umpire by issuing a $17,000 fine to Williams.
On one level, it’s not surprising. Tennis is a sport with a conservative reverence for authority. Yet it would be incredibly helpful to at least get some clarification from Ramos, to at least hear his justification for turning what began as a minor infraction into one of the biggest controversies in the tournament’s history.
In the NBA, NFL and NBA, when a controversial call is made, an official is made available to talk to a pool reporter after the game so fans can understand the reasoning behind it. Ramos was nowhere to be found after being booed off the court at the end of the match.
On Sunday on ESPN, USTA president Katrina Adams sidestepped a question about Ramos’ availability, saying there has never been a need to make officials available to the media.
Really? That’s kind of hard to believe.
Ramos is known as an experienced, by-the-book official. He is the only active chair umpire to have officiated the men’s singles finals at all four Grand Slam tournaments and an Olympic singles final. He has a history of ticking off players, male and female, because he is a stickler for the rules.
At the French Open in 2017, Ramos penalized Rafael Nadal twice for time delays. At the 2016 Olympics, he issued Andy Murray a code violation when he thought the reigning champion had called him “stupid.”
“I didn’t say ‘stupid umpire,’ I said ‘stupid umpiring,’ ’’ Murray said. “But if you want to be the star of the show, that’s fine.”
Ramos also penalized Venus Williams, Serena’s sister, for receiving coaching during the 2016 French Open, the same offense for which he penalized Serena at the beginning of the second set Saturday.
The biggest question is whether Ramos would have treated Williams differently if she were a man. There is no record of a man calling Ramos a thief — which drew her third violation — so this cannot be answered definitively.
What can be said definitively is that some of the best men’s players have been famous for bad behavior. John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi berated umpires.
Patrick McEnroe, John's brother, believes Williams wasn’t allowed to do the same because she is a woman.
“It has to be said that she has a point when it comes to gender bias,” Patrick McEnroe said Sunday on “Good Morning America.” “I believe that a chair umpire who’s a man, against another man, would have said, whether it’s Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer, ‘Listen, you’ve got to pipe down now. You’ve got to be quiet. You’ve gotten two violations. If you get another one, you’re getting a game penalty.’ ”
John McEnroe admitted in a biography that he was not punished for many of his outbursts because they knew he put butts in the seats. “If I went out, they lost money. The tournament directors knew it, and the linesman knew it, I knew it. The system let me get away with more and more.”
He knew he was going to get the star treatment and used it to get a competitive edge. Who is to say Williams wasn’t trying to do the same thing Saturday?
There is no doubt she behaved poorly, but that does not make her unique in the annals of tennis. Williams was being outplayed, but maybe she could have battled back to take the second set before Ramos assessed the one-game penalty for “verbal abuse” that put Osaka up 5-3.
Williams, who has won 23 Grand Slams, deserved the same type of star treatment that generations of men have received. She deserved the benefit of the doubt, and we deserved to see a U.S. Open final that was decided by two women on the court instead of one man sitting high above them in a chair.