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U.S. Open highlights the poor treatment of Serena Williams

In Tennis’ U.S. Open Women’s Final, tennis superstar Serena Williams got into a heated disagreement with a referee, Carlos Ramos, after he accused her of cheating. The ref saw Williams’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, making a hand gesture, with his hands six inches apart moving in the apparent direction he wanted Williams to go.

The ref saw this and issued a code violation for cheating. Williams, however, has been very outspoken about her resistance to coaching, even when it is allowed. She protested the call saying that she was not cheating and interpreted Mouratoglou’s gesture as an encouragement, saying that to them that meant something along the lines of “keep it up.”

Mouratoglou later admitted that he was coaching. However, Ramos could have easily issued an informal warning to Williams instead of the formal first code violation. During the next changeover, Williams and Ramos had a civil conversation where she said she would not ever cheat and hadn’t, and he replied, “I know that.” Because Ramos said that, Williams likely interpreted that he would rescind his earlier call, which is highly unusual, and continued along.

In the second set, Williams made a key mistake and reacted by throwing her racket onto the court, destroying it. Throwing a racket is an automatic code violation and after a second violation, this results in a loss of a point. Williams initially did not understand that she had lost a point, likely because she thought the ref had overturned the call, but then reacted strongly. She demanded an apology from Ramos for the cheating call. Williams grows increasingly agitated with him and eventually calls him a thief for stealing the point from her.

After this, Ramos issued the third code violation for verbal abuse. Ramos indicated that by calling him thief, Williams was verbally abusing him. The third code violation resulted in a loss of a game for Williams, if she had gotten a fourth it would have ended the match.

Many have reacted with anger towards Williams, saying she ruined the win for Naomi Osaka and was cheating. However, we have seen many examples throughout the history of tennis where men have reacted with even worse language and violence towards referees and have not been issued code violations like Williams. John McEnroe was well known for his temper tantrums on court, but was met with laughter rather than anger from fans and the public. When men freak out it is “just one of those days” or met with people saying “you know how men are.” When women get angry it is “unusual” and a “temper tantrum.” This only adds to the rhetoric of women not being allowed to express anger when men can. McEnroe obviously was given code violations, but for far more severe language and with much more violence involved. The double standard here is enormous.

Williams is also a black woman in a predominantly white sport. Her anger being taken more threateningly than other white tennis players only further highlights racism in the sport. Williams should be able to call out referees and get upset without having scared white people try and punish her for her emotions.

In early July of this year, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency was found to have drug tested Williams five times at that point while they had only tested her counterparts half as much. This is also more than the top five men’s players.

Williams has been tested more than everyone else because officials simply cannot believe that a black woman is as good as Williams is. They keep trying to find some other explanation for how she has had so much success, even after a complicated pregnancy, and cannot reconcile the fact that she has worked incredibly hard and is simply that good on her own.

The media coverage of this event in the weeks following has been atrocious. Most notably, The Herald Sun produced a cartoon from Mark Knight which depicted Williams in Jim-Crow like fashion. Williams is drawn as brutish, large and angry while everyone else in the image is depicted as white and slender, even Naomi Osaka who is a person of color.

There are many many components that are wrong with this image, and they all serve the purpose of othering Serena Williams. She is drawn to be further away from everyone else, with her hair standing straight on end and muscles bulging. Her face is drawn in probably the most dehumanizing crying pout and she is jumping on top of her racket. Ramos is in the back with Osaka, asking her, “can’t you just let her win?” The depiction of Ramos looks almost like Mr. Rogers and Osaka is slight, white and blond-haired. This depiction white-washes Osaka and dehumanizes Williams. Rightly so, it has come under intense fire from other publications and from the public.

However, it is not the only publication which has attempted to other Williams, it is just the most obvious one. Many news stories used racist and sexist language along the lines of the “angry black woman” trope in an attempt to call out Williams for her behavior. This is unacceptable and yet unsurprising.

Williams was wronged after the U.S. Open. She was wronged by a referee who harshly issued citations for mild language and anger. She was wronged by The Herald Sun in their depiction of her. She was wronged by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Most of all, she was and is being wronged by those who are using her actions as a way of distracting from the blatant discrimination all these agencies have used to try and undermine her abilities as an athlete. Williams deserves respect and to be recognized as simply being an amazing tennis player.

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