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The weight of being, and beating, Serena Williams

"I'm always going to remember the Serena that I love."

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 08:  Naomi Osaka of Japan after winning the Women's Singles finals match alongside runner up Serena Williams of the United States on Day Thirteen of the 2018 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 8, 2018 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 08: Naomi Osaka of Japan after winning the Women's Singles finals match alongside runner up Serena Williams of the United States on Day Thirteen of the 2018 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 8, 2018 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

When she was in third grade, Naomi Osaka wrote an entire report on Serena Williams for class.

“I colored it and everything,” the 20-year-old told reporters after the U.S. Open final on Saturday. “I said, I want to be like her (smiling).”

On Saturday at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Osaka didn’t become Williams, but she did beat her soundly, 6-2, 6-4 in her first Grand Slam final. That storyline, a young woman achieving her dream by beating her idol on the biggest stage of the sport, is one of the most irresistible narratives in sports.

But reality is always much more messy. There’s a burden that comes with being a living, breathing, book report subject. And there’s a burden that comes with beating them. Both were on full display on Saturday.

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But, by now you probably know what happened. In the second set, Williams got a warning because umpire Carlos Ramos caught her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, coaching in the stands. A few games later, Williams smashed a racket, and got a point penalty. She was extremely upset by this, and ranted at Ramos through an entire changeover, now famously calling him a “thief.” He gave her a third infraction for verbal abuse, which resulted in a game penalty. She called the tournament director out to the court, and accused Ramos of sexism. The New York crowd booed. Osaka won the match, then cried. The crowd booed some more. Williams tried to comfort her. It worked. (Kind-of.)

It was a gut-wrenching match to watch, and three days later, I’m still struggling to process everything. The takes aren’t helping. The governing bodies of tennis can’t agree on whether Ramos acted properly, and the legends of the sport can’t agree on whether Serena’s emotions were justified. Throw in the racist cartoons, the fines, the rumors of umpires boycotting Williams’ matches in the future, and the input from people all over the pop culture and political spectrum, and you’ve got a cacophony of conflicting conclusions that will make your head spin. (And, if you’re me, leave you staring at a blinking cursor for a couple of days.)

Most of the post-match conversation has focused on Williams’ anger. But what about all of the other emotions that were on display out there? While Williams was certainly upset, I don’t think it came from a place of anger. I think it came from a place of fear.

For her second straight major final, she was the favorite, but she wasn’t playing her best tennis. And her opponent, Osaka in this case, was rising to the occasion. As much as we like to paint Williams as superwoman — and as much as she leans into that characterization herself — she’s mortal. In fact, she’s a 36-year-old who gave birth just over a year ago, and who faced life-threatening post-pregnancy complications. Yes, she might — and, let’s face it, likely will — go on to win more major titles, and retire with all the records in the sport. But also, she might not. Because the future of tennis — a future she directly inspired to join the sport — isn’t going to give her anything.

So, Williams was already in a vulnerable spot when Ramos gave her the coaching violation, a call that involves a lot of discretion, but which Ramos was within his rights to make. (Mouratoglou admitted that he was, indeed, coaching.) And while it’s easy to sit on the sidelines and say that Williams should have been able to brush that aside, it’s understandable why, in that moment, she couldn’t.

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Williams has faced decades of racist attacks on her credibility, be it rumors of drug use, familial match fixing, or even regular comments from the dredges of the internet (or high-profile Russian officials) accusing her of being a man. She’s been treated like an outsider since the day she burst onto the scene. She wasn’t just defending herself against that one call from Ramos; she was, in that moment, defending the reputation she’d had to fight for, the reputation that so many have fought to take against her.

And later, when she accused Ramos of sexism after he docked her a point penalty for breaking her racket, and then a game penalty for her “thief” rant during a changeover, I didn’t take that at face value, either. Ramos is a well-respected official, and there are legitimate arguments both for and against the call he made. But tennis definitely has a sexism problem. This is a sport that sends a million signals to women that they are less than, be it through the scheduling of their finals, the policing of their wardrobes, or the size of their paychecks outside of majors.

And, as you can see by the reaction to Williams’ outburst, this is a problem that women — especially women of color — across society face on a daily basis. This feeling that they don’t go through life with the same emotional margin of error that white men do. That any heightened emotion they show will be used against them. It’s not always easy to rationalize feelings like that. Williams, who is seen more as an icon than an individual by so many, feels this tenfold. She’s also been through this before — especially emotional outbursts and confrontations with tennis umpires during big-time matches at the U.S. Open.

She knew what the reaction to her reaction was going to be, and we could see heron the court, in real time, trying to counter the media narratives she knew were coming, trying to stand up for herself, to fight for her right to have emotions, to fight against the claims that she was a cheater. To fight for her right to be herself, flaws and all.

So, I didn’t see anger out there on the court. I saw someone who was, just for a few fleeting moments, buckling under the weight of being Serena Williams.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the net, we saw the composure and the bravery that it takes to take down Williams on such a stage, and under such trying circumstances. Osaka was flawless, from her forehand to her serve, her gutsy shot selection to her nerves of steel. She said at one point, she thought to herself, “What would Serena do in this situation?” Because that’s what she’s used to thinking, when she needs to inspire herself during matches.

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Afterwards was different, though. When the crowd was booing during the trophy ceremony, Osaka actually apologized. Williams, showing a gracious and nurturing side of herself, ended up being the one comforting Osaka. Osaka was elated to have just won her first major title, and she was sad for Williams, and understood the crowd’s disappointment. All of those feelings were together, at once.

It was a beautiful moment, where the lines between winner and loser, idol and fan, past, present, and future, were all blurred together. It was complicated, but that’s how life works.

The debate over Ramos’ rule enforcement and Williams’ reaction will live on, possibly indefinitely. People will continue to see Williams as a superhero of social justice and strength, or as an angry black woman, with no nuance in between. But, perhaps we should let Osaka have the last word here. When asked after her victory whether Williams’ on-court behavior changed the way she viewed the legend, Osaka didn’t hesitate.

“The thing is, like, I don’t know what happened on the court. So for me, I’m always going to remember the Serena that I love. It doesn’t change anything for me,” Osaka told reporters. “She was really nice to me, at the net and on the podium. I don’t really see what would change.”