The 2018 U.S. Open’s women’s finals should have been an amazing match. Instead, it was a historic disgrace.
For those who don’t watch tennis, or maybe live under a rock, a quick summary: Serena Williams played 20-year-old Naomi Osaka in the finals. Williams, 36, was largely the favorite to win — Osaka had never even made it to the finals of a Grand Slam — which would also mark a triumphant comeback one year after nearly dying in childbirth.
Osaka, after making history when she made the final — she is Haitian-Japanese and is the first Japanese player ever to make it to the finals — said her message for Serena was: “I love you.”
This match was going to be good; Osaka’s strength matched Serena’s. The storylines were unbeatable, too: One, a young girl living her childhood dreams by playing her hero; two, a resilient woman making a powerful comeback after a traumatic birth experience.
Unfortunately, the narrative was completely overshadowed by the actions of the umpire.
Carlos Ramos issued a series of petty violations against Williams that ended up in a game penalty at a critical point in the match. As Sally Jenkins wrote in The Washington Post, “Chair umpire Carlos Ramos managed to rob not one but two players in the women’s U.S. Open final. Nobody has ever seen anything like it: An umpire so wrecked a big occasion that both players, Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams alike, wound up distraught with tears streaming down their faces during the trophy presentation and an incensed crowd screamed boos at the court. Ramos took what began as a minor infraction and turned it into one of the nastiest and most emotional controversies in the history of tennis, all because he couldn’t take a woman speaking sharply to him.”
Hot takes on the match — and there are many — focus on the misogyny and racism Williams has dealt with. They write about how how tennis “applies the rules inconsistently.” If Serena was a man, or a white woman, would the umpire have considered her calling him a “thief” verbal abuse? (No. See this Twitter thread of the umpire getting much worse harassment from other players, and nothing happening.)
But what was particularly upsetting to me — and it was all so upsetting — and why we’re writing about it here in Kveller, is how Serena’s status as a mom was somehow relevant to what happened.
To be fair, in her anger at the referee, she tells him, “I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter and I stand [for] what’s right for her, and I’ve never cheated, and you owe me an apology.”
Invoking her daughter in the midst of the match — in the midst of her fight with Ramos — shows how much motherhood has changed Serena’s outlook.
And yet, the post-game press conference, Williams was asked a series of comments about… no, not tennis, but motherhood.
Would a male tennis player be asked how they will someday explain their anger to their baby child? (No.) Serena handled the question with humor, but it still pisses me off.
— Dave Zirin (@EdgeofSports) September 8, 2018
Exhibit A is the second question she was asked: “Serena, how did motherhood influence how you comforted Naomi today?” (At the trophy presentation, the crowd was booing, both players were both crying, and Serena hugs Osaka.)
“Umm,” Williams smiles and gives a half laugh, “I don’t know. At one point, I felt bad. Because I’m crying and she’s crying. She just won, and I’m not sure if they were happy tears or they were just sad tears because of the moment. I felt like, wow, this wasn’t how I felt when I won my first Grand Slam, so I was like, I definitely don’t want her to feel like that.”
She ends with a laugh: “Maybe it was the mom in me, that was like, listen, we gotta pull ourselves together here.”
Or maybe it was the human in her? After all, a 20-year-old who just won her first Grand Slam was being booed by the crowd. She didn’t have to be a mom to realize this girl needed to be comforted.
But it gets worse.
The fourth question from journalists: “Serena, I know you talk about as a mother, these teachable moments. When Alexis is old enough, how will you explain what happened out there tonight?”
Williams says, “Honestly, I don’t think she’ll bring it up — is she going to be like, ‘Mom, what happened in 2018 U.S. Open?'”
The reporter follows up, “She’ll see videos. What will you say to her, how you maybe could’ve handled it differently?”
Williams says, “Well, I’ll tell her if she sees it, first of all, I stood up for what I believed in, I stood up for what was right, and sometimes things in life doesn’t [sic] happen they way we want them, but always stay gracious and stay humble. And that’s the lesson I think we can all learn from this.”
Consider for a minute that John McEnroe had three children near the end of his career.
Not once in a press conference was he asked how he would explain his anger to his babies like Serena just was.
— Nick Jack Pappas (@Pappiness) September 8, 2018
Many on Twitter pointed out that other famous tennis players who are fathers — notably, John McEnroe — were never asked how their behavior would reflect on their kids. Yet the journalist is insistent on finding out what Serena will tell her daughter (who goes by Olympia, not Alexis, don’t you follow her on Instagram?!) in a way that feels uncomfortable.
And this faulty line of reasoning wasn’t limited to the press conference. It’s been invoked in essays and reports about the finals, too. A BBC article, for example, notes: “That’s when Williams, 16 years older than her opponent, intervened as her maternal instinct kicked in.”
(There have been good essays on Serena and motherhood — see Stacia Brown’s essay “Serena Williams is Fighting for Two” in the Cut — but, it has mainly been mishandled.)
Serena ended her the press conference on an inspiring note, tearing up:
“I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and that wants to express themselves and they want to be a strong woman and they’re going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s gonna work out for the next person.”
She hasn’t commented since then, but she has shared an image of herself and her daughter on Instagram.
We’re rooting for you, Serena.