NEW YORK—The contrast was stark. From chaos to the comfort zone of acclaiming a great champion, the final weekend of US Open displayed the vast range of emotions, upsets, drama and personalities that tennis is capable of bestowing on its ever growing public.
As 12 days of oppressive heat dissipated into glowering clouds and rain, the 23,000 spectators packing Arthur Ashe stadium found themselves witnessing a traumatic women’s final on the Saturday and a well contested men’s final between two good friends just 24 hours later.
Keeping her nerve and concentration in a manner few 20-year-olds could muster, Naomi Osaka defeated Serena Williams 6-2, 6-4 to give Haiti and Japan their first Grand Slam champion. Novak Djokovic, at 31, laid to rest any lingering doubts that he had returned to his best after his Wimbledon triumph, by outplaying Juan Martin del Potro 6-3, 7-6, 6-3.
In comparison to what had occurred the previous day, Djokovic’s victory was almost routine. If the ball kids were busy wiping spots of wetness from the court on numerous occasions, it was because the roof was leaking.
On Saturday, the moisture was generated entirely by tears. In one of most bizarre endings to a tennis match I have ever witnessed, Osaka and Serena Williams were both crying at the presentation ceremony. Quite literally the place was awash with emotion.
In the hours that followed everyone weighed in with their opinion of who was right and who was wrong and I was not alone in recognizing the need to state one fact quite clearly–Osaka was the champion and she deserved to be. It is never possible to write off Serena at any stage of a sporting contest but it seemed quite clear to most seasoned observers that Osaka had played the better tennis and was on her way to victory even before the histrionics intervened.
At least three people could be faulted to some degree and Osaka wasn’t one of them. Even when she lost her serve in the second set, having saved no less than 20 break points in her previous three matches, Osaka refused to be rattled in front of an increasingly hysterical pro-Serena crowd and broke straight back. It was a remarkable performance.
(Women's final photos by Anita Aguilar)
The three culprits were:
1) Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena’s long time coach, who was filmed making gestures that clearly reflected attempts to coach. To his credit, the Frenchman, admitted as much to Pam Shriver on live TV. His excuse was that everyone does it. True.
2) Umpire Carlos Ramos, a veteran official who has been officiated big finals since 2007 went by the book and followed the rules. But good umpiring requires more than that. It needs a sensitivity to the occasion and the personalities of the players on court. It needs a good knowledge of how certain players react under stress and a method of keeping them as calm as possible. He could have ignored Mouratoglou’s first signal because it is almost certain Serena didn’t see it. So when he gave a warning, she took it as an attack on her sportsmanship. “I don’t cheat, I don’t need to” was the gist of her vehement but controlled reaction.
However, as Osaka continued to play the better tennis, Serena became ever more furious with her inability to counter the unerring accuracy and power that the young contender was throwing at her and, after dropping serve, she smashed her racket on the court in a rage. No question here that Ramos was right in docking her a point penalty.
3) Soon after, Serena lost control of herself. A player of her vast experience had to know that one more infraction would bring about the loss of a game. Under those circumstances, it is best not to call the umpire a thief. It is best not to scream at him, “Say you’re sorry! I’ve never cheated in my life! You’re a liar!” On many levels it was easy to understand where the emotion was coming from but in carrying on the way she did, Serena paid scant regard to her young opponent.
As I have heard male players use totally unacceptable language while ranting at umpires and get away with it on numerous occasions in the past, my initial reaction was that Ramos might have given Serena a ‘soft’ warning and tried to calm her down. Some umpires have a better bedside manner in these circumstances than others. Ramos chose not to try and gave the game to Osaka. Serena, of course, went nuts and called the referee and WTA Supervisor on court but was told–and through her tears and rage—accepted that under the rules there was nothing they could do. Once an umpire has made a judgment, it cannot be overturned.
That, however, did not stop the arguments which raged on through practically every media outlet in America for more than 24 hours afterwards. Once again, professional tennis burst its banks and flooded into the mainstream, picking the mangled issues of sexism and racism along the way. It was inevitable and understandable because we live in an age where every public controversy is debated in miniscule detail.
Is that fair? Are uproars like this good for tennis? Should the media–as well as the WTA and numerous high profile stars like Billie Jean King–largely have sided with Serena? By just posing those questions, I will get a hundred different answers and shades of opinion.
One of the most calming reactions came from that fierce warrior, the men’s champion himself. My colleague Chris Bowers wrote a book about Djokovic called the The Sporting Statesman and it seemed Novak was trying to live up to that when he said, “I think men and women are treated this way or that way depending on the situation. It’s hard to generalize things. I don’t see it’s necessary really to debate that.”
My own summation is this: The game needs to sort out the coaching rule, probably following the dictum that if you can’t control it properly, don’t have one; Ramos should have been more sensitive to the situation and the player he was dealing with; Serena should have kept better control of herself. Most importantly, the world should stand and applaud a hugely talented, fascinating and endearing new champion who overcame immense difficulties to achieve something very special at the age of 20–a Grand Slam title. Well played, Naomi!