The 2018 US Open showed how relevant tennis is to this cultural moment

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Court Report—the ITF and WTA issue statements about the Serena Williams-Carlos Ramos controversy:

The circus has left town.

That’s the thought I always have when I walk out of the press room and through the grounds on the final evening of the US Open. By that time, close to midnight, the fans are long gone; the player who just won the men’s title is somewhere in Manhattan with a lampshade on his head; and the only sounds come from the clean-up trucks that will soon strip the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center of the last remains of the year’s final Grand Slam.

There’s a lot to wipe away this time around. By any measure, this year’s edition of the US Open circus was a three-ringer.

Remember when the No. 1 women’s seed, Simona Halep, lost the first match in the new Louis Armstrong Stadium? When the humidity was so brutal that the Open created a new heat rule for the men? When Alizé Cornet was penalized for “unsportsmanlike conduct” for taking her shirt off and exposing her sports bra? When umpire Mohamed Lahyani climbed down from his chair to give Nick Kyrgios a pep talk? When Roger Federer hit a highlight-reel shot, and Kyrgios nearly topped it with his reaction? When Millmania (briefly) reigned after John Millman’s win over Federer? When Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem launched missiles at each other until 2 A.M.? I don’t need to ask whether you remember the finale, the unfortunate contretemps between Serena Williams and Carlos Ramos that blew the women’s final to smithereens.

Grand Slams are, on one level, a series of tempests in teapots. What seems like an earth-shattering controversy one day is replaced by a brand-new earth-chattering controversy 24 hours later. This relentless, mostly frivolous parade is what makes the Slams so much superficial fun. When the two weeks are up, the sport moves on to another city halfway around the world, and Flushing Meadows falls silent again.

But this year’s Open wasn’t just sound and fury, signifying nothing. Amid the fluff, there was substance that resonated beyond the courts.

Tennis rightly has a reputation as a conservative, upper-crust game, but it’s also the only major sport in which men and women have always competed on the same courts, by the same rules, at the same tournaments, and together on mixed-doubles teams. Women have been playing at the US Open since 1887, and one of the sport’s first superstars was a woman, Suzanne Lenglen. A century later, that dual-gender tradition makes tennis uniquely relevant for today’s post-#MeToo cultural moment. Nowhere else in sports can we compare, side by side, the way men and women are perceived and treated.

Comparison—and double-standard—No. 1 came when Cornet was penalized for taking her top off on court, while dozens of male players sat shirtless (and sockless) during changeovers in the sweltering heat—never has a Grand Slam event gotten so naked. But while that made for a slightly racy one-day story, it was just a warm-up for the women’s final, and the war that ensued between Serena and Ramos. When the Washington Post described Ramos’ treatment of Williams as a “sexist power play” on its front page the next day, a thousand hot takes and living-room arguments were launched.

If you’re looking for historial evidence of a double standard, it’s not hard to find. In the most famous match ever played at Flushing Meadows, the fourth-rounder between Jimmy Connors vs. Aaron Krickstein in 1991, Jimbo peppered the chair umpire with unprintable insults and didn’t receive so much as a warning. While tennis has punished its “bad boys” at various points, it has also mythologized them.

But in terms of today’s game, and in this particular instance, the double standard isn’t as clear. If Kyrgios, the modern-day bad boy, had said and done exactly what Serena said and did in a match with this umpire, would he also have ended up being docked a game? It’s certainly possible. Kyrgios has incurred that penalty before, and Ramos takes pride in his stickler’s consistency. The first code violation he handed Serena, for coaching, was defensible, and the second, for racquet abuse, was automatic. (Where he made a mistake was the game penalty; it was a trigger pulled too quickly. At that stage of a major final, he should have given Serena a soft warning that a game deduction would be coming if she didn’t stop berating him.)

Whichever side of this debate you come down on, the broader question inspired by the Serena incident—how are men and women expected to behave in competition?—is one that can best be asked in tennis. With her combative approach to the game, Serena has always challenged those expectations.

*****

As in most other walks of life, there has been progress in achieving equality in tennis, as well as retrenchment and lingering chauvinism. Over the last 20 years, dual-gender tournaments have become the norm, and equal prize money the rule at all four Grand Slams. In recent years, Andy Murray has championed the women’s game in a way that no other major male star has. At the same time, many of the men still don’t embrace equal pay, and the ATP tour is planning a men’s-only team event next January, the World Team Cup, which may replace a dual-gender team exhibition, the Hopman Cup. Just before the Open, officials at Roland Garros banned the “warrior princess” catsuit that Serena wore in Paris this summer. And as far as the #MeToo movement itself, Judy Murray—Andy’s mother, and a former British Fed Cup captain—recently told The Guardian that tennis is overdue for a reckoning with sexual abuse.

Yet the Trump-era feminist surge has had its positive effect. In past years, whenever Serena wasn’t dominating, the women’s tour would inevitably be described as mired in “chaos,” and lacking the star-power of the men’s side. For most of 2017 and 2018, Serena hasn’t dominated, but the common view of the WTA has changed. These days we’re more likely to hear praise for the tour’s variety of personalities and story lines. And that praise is warranted. Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova, Caroline Wozniacki, Sloane Stephens, Naomi Osaka, Jelena Ostapenko, Daria Kasatkina, Garbiñe Muguruza, Venus Williams, Aryna Sabalenka and others: They’ve all put on stirring performances over the last year and a half. That doesn’t mean the women’s tour lacked stories and personalities in the past, of course. It’s just that now, attempts to sneer at women’s tennis or downgrade the WTA specifically are more likely to be seen for the sexist responses they are.

Unfortunately, the women’s event at this year’s US Open ended with a disastrous final. But it also produced a major new star in Osaka. This 20-year-old daughter of a Haitian father and Japanese mother who lives in the U.S. has a compelling story, a quick wit, an excitingly aggressive game and a memorable look. She’s the perfect new star for the traveling tennis circus, and perfect, hopefully, for a multicultural, millennial future. Tennis—its men as well as its women—should be happy she’s here.

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