Serena Williams overreacted in a world already rigged against reactions by women.
Serena Williams is not just Serena Williams — she is a symbol of resistance, and unfortunately, or not, those tend to transcend the rules of mortal discourse. To talk about Serena Williams, therefore, becomes an impossible act of balancing between her as a person —persevering, petulant, strong, temperamental — and her as the manifestation of a larger identity — black, woman, mother, the best tennis player to ever live. The two facets of her being obviously overlap — part of who we are after all is determined by all that we have lived through. But sometimes the lines become so blurry that to criticise Serena Williams is seen as blasphemy against centuries of struggle, and to defend her is token identity politics.
“Black excellence,” author Claudia Rankine wrote in 2015 in ‘The Meaning of Serena Williams’, “is supposed to perform with good manners and forgiveness in the face of any racist slights or attacks,” but “somehow, along the way, she (Williams) made a decision to be excellent while still being Serena.”
To be a loud, black woman in a white man’s sport is an act of rebellion in itself. By the virtue of her very existence, Williams cannot escape the responsibility of paving the way for other minorities to follow in her footsteps. But if the ‘being of Serena’ becomes a completely political act, then are we no longer allowed to critique individual characteristics? How much can ‘Serena Williams’ be justified if that Serena happens to be unfair, angry, abusive, and egotistical at that moment.
At the 2018 US Open final Saturday, that’s exactly what she was.
Standing next to Williams on stage was someone not yet symbol enough – Naomi Osaka, 20-years-old, and the woman who had just become the first player from Japan to ever win a Grand Slam title – Asian, woman, young in the field, playing a match against the best tennis player to ever live on her home turf. She was apologetic, soft-spoken, ashamed to defeat Serena. “I know that everyone was cheering for her and I’m sorry it had to end like this,” Osaka said as she wiped a tear off her cheek in front of a stadium filled with thousands. But for posterity, Osaka will now always be the girl who won that match in which Serena Williams had a meltdown.
Osaka’s erasure from her own story does not take away from the fact that perhaps Carlos Ramos, the referee, was sexist. To give a player a third violation on the basis of being called a ‘thief’ might have been technically justified, but customarily without a lot of precedent – men have been let off for a lot worse in the past. However, if we flip the story, we also know that Serena Williams was trailing in a match she was desperate to win – a 24th Grand Slam title would have created history, as she would tie her for the all-time record held by Australia’s Margaret Court.
Interestingly, historical precedent also tells us a number of other interesting things – in 2009, Williams was disqualified from the same tournament when she told a linesman who gave her a line violation, “I swear to God, I am [expletive] going to take this [expletive] ball and shove it down your [expletive] throat.’’ The referee, Carlo Ramos is known to play hard-ball. From Rafael Nadal to Andy Murray, and even Williams’s sister Venus, Ramos has angered many legends with his adherence to inflexible protocol and arguably outdated tennis propriety. Serena’s coach Patrick Mouratoglou later admitted to coaching during Saturday’s match, for which she received the first code violation. The second was for smashing her tennis racket.
In this moment, Serena Williams was a black woman throwing a tantrum – and yes, she can be both.
“When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalised for it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ and there are no repercussions. Thank you, Serena Williams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same,” American former world no. 1 Billie Jean King tweeted to Serena. And she’s not wrong either.
Serena Williams overreacted in a world already rigged against reactions (forget over) by women. But that’s not to say Serena, the person, isn’t prone to overreactions. It’s just terribly unfortunate that she exists within a system that will always unfairly penalise Serena, the woman.