Serena Williams outburst offers reminder of tennis' antiquated contradictions

The no-coaching rule is still a point of principle for some within the sport, but it feels out of date and, as many have pointed out, coaches everywhere abuse it

Paul Newman
Flushing Meadows
Sunday 09 September 2018 15:46 BST
Serena Williams says she is sticking up for women's rights following a heated Umpire Exchange at the US Open

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Considering that the player involved had just been handed three code violations in one match – the first for illegal on-court coaching, the second for smashing her racket and the third for verbal abuse of the umpire – it was remarkable how quickly the authorities came to her defence here on Saturday at the US Open.

In a flurry of statements that made this feel more like a political gathering than a sporting event, the Women’s Tennis Association said that Serena Williams “at all times plays with class and makes us proud”, the tournament stressed that Williams had “made it clear that she did not receive any coaching”, and Katrina Adams, the President of the United States Tennis Association, said the 23-times Grand Slam champion was “a credit to our sport”.

Despite Williams’ clear transgressions, it seemed that nobody wanted to stand up and defend Carlos Ramos, the hugely experienced umpire at the centre of the extraordinary events that unfolded during the women’s singles final. The penalties he imposed – most notably the docking of a game when Williams was trailing 4-3 in the second set – contributed to the American’s shocking 6-2, 6-4 defeat at the hands of Naomi Osaka.

It was probably just as well that the USTA did not go ahead with their customary post-final presentation to the umpire given the crowd’s hostility to Ramos in Arthur Ashe Stadium as Williams raged at his decisions. She said he was a liar, called him a thief for taking a point off her following her second code violation and later accused him of sexism, claiming that male players got away with calling umpires much worse.

There was no shortage of former players rallying to Williams’ defence, including the highly respected Billie Jean King. “When a woman is emotional she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalised for it,” King wrote on Twitter. “When a man does the same he’s ‘outspoken’ and there are no repercussions. Thank you, Serena Williams, for calling out this double standard.”

So was Williams harshly treated? The first point that should be made is that Ramos played everything by the book.

Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams’ coach, admitted in a post-match interview that he had indeed been trying to coach her from the sidelines, which is not allowed. It is a fundamental principle of Grand Slam tennis that players must work things out on their own on the court without any help from their coaches. According to the rules, his conduct merited a code violation for Williams.

The racket smash was self-evident abuse of equipment while the Grand Slam Rulebook defines verbal abuse as “a statement about an official, opponent, sponsor, spectator or other person that implies dishonesty or is derogatory, insulting or otherwise abusive”. Calling the umpire a liar and a thief was a clear example of verbal abuse and therefore worthy of a code violation.

Nevertheless, there was one respect in which Ramos might have acted more sensitively. Although television cameras caught Mouratoglou making signals to Williams – he appeared to be suggesting that she should be playing further up the court – there was no evidence whatsoever that she had seen what he was doing.

Williams accused the umpire of lying and called him a ‘thief’ for taking a point off her
Williams accused the umpire of lying and called him a ‘thief’ for taking a point off her (Getty)

The anger in Williams’ denials certainly suggested that she had not seen it. As she also pointed out, she is one of those players who never take advantage of the rule on the women’s tour which allows coaches to come on the court and talk to their players during matches.

Many people within tennis think the no-coaching rule is wrong and you could argue that it is unfair to penalise a player for someone else’s actions. King made the point succinctly: “Coaching on every point should be allowed in tennis. It isn’t and as a result a player was penalised for the actions of her coach. This should not happen.”

Although Ramos was going by the rules, might he not have handled the situation better by having a quiet word with Williams and telling her that she would receive a code violation if Mouratoglou did the same thing again? He was not to know, of course, that the situation would escalate in the way it did, but a more sensitive approach might have stopped that happening.

The Women’s Tennis Association said there were “matters that need to be looked into that took place during the match”. Now would be a particularly good time for the sport to reconsider its “no coaching” rules.

Tennis is full of contradictions in this area, with one rule on the women’s tour, another on the men’s tour and at the Grand Slam events, and a third in force at Davis Cup and Fed Cup ties, where team captains actually sit at the side of the court and coach their players.

The no-coaching rule is still a point of principle for some within the sport, but it feels out of date and, as Mouratoglou pointed out, coaches everywhere abuse it. Many coaches use private codes to pass on advice to their players – “When I touch my cap, it means you should be coming to the net more” – and the rule is very difficult to enforce fairly.

As for Ramos, it would take a brave tournament official to put him in charge of another Williams match after she told him: “You will never, ever be on a court of mine as long as you live.”

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