A Crying Shame: The 2018 US Open will only be remembered for Serena

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WATCH—Additional reaction to Serena Williams' code violations in the US Open final:

NEW YORK—The 2018 US Open is now closed. Novak Djokovic won his second major title of the season and Naomi Osaka officially announced her arrival into the upper echelons of the game. Bethanie Mattek-Sands, alongside her partner Jamie Murray, made an emotional return from a devastating knee injury to capture the mixed doubles title. Mike Bryan won his second consecutive major without his brother Bob, and with fellow American Jack Sock. CoCo Vandeweghe, who has struggled mightily this year in singles, teamed up with Ashleigh Barty to win the doubles title, while Brazil’s Thiago Seyboth Wild and Wang Xiyu from China grabbed coveted junior crowns.

Sadly, however, all anyone is going to remember from this year’s Open is what happened during the women’s singles final. Tears abounded. And what a crying shame that is.

When Osaka was eight years old, she wrote a report about Serena Williams. The young girl, born in Japan but raised in Miami, painstakingly colored in the project and then told her third-grade classmates, “I want to be like her.”

After Saturday night, maybe not so much.

Osaka is the 2018 US Open champion. No one can take that away from her. But instead of celebrating Saturday night, she said she was going to sleep. A completely understandable response given the turmoil in a final that left her in tears as she accepted the winner’s trophy. And they weren’t tears of joy.

From the moment she took the court under a roofed Arthur Ashe Stadium that made every noise reverberate off the domed ceiling, Osaka, just 20 years old, was under siege. During the warm-up, not more than five rows up from the court, a young woman—clearly a Serena fan—shouted obscenities in Osaka’s direction then thrust the middle fingers on both hands at her. Thankfully, Osaka didn’t see the display.

What Osaka did see, however, were the antics perpetrated by Williams that marred what could have been a high-quality match. In her post-match press conference, Osaka insisted that she wasn’t aware of Williams berating umpire Carlos Ramos, accusing him of being a liar and a thief for playing by the book and penalizing the 23-time Grand Slam champion for coaching, smashing a racket and then verbally abusing him. Osaka said it was too loud in the arena to hear what was going on. But given the intense reaction from the crowd and incessant booing, it is impossible to believe that Osaka was so focused on her own game—on winning her first major—that she was able to completely block out what everyone else saw happening. She did, however, play that way.

The fact is, Serena and her team are wholly responsible for what happened on Saturday night. If Patrick Mouratoglou hadn’t given Serena directives from her player box, hadn’t coached her to go to the net—which he admitted he did—then Ramos wouldn’t have charged Williams with illegal mid-match coaching. Serena claimed, over and over, that she hadn’t seen Mouratoglou’s hand signals, yet within three points she was suddenly hitting approach shots, something she hadn’t done previously. She told Ramos, “I didn’t cheat. I’d rather lose.”

When she demolished her racquet after the fifth game of the second set—a game in which she surrendered the break of serve she held—Serena had to know there would be consequences. Some 14 men and four other women in the tournament were penalized and fined for the same transgression, including Djokovic in the first round and Stan Wawrinka in the second.

In all, 25 men and 10 women were fined during the two-week tournament to the tune of $88,800. Serena accounted for $17,000 of that total. Dominika Cibulkova, who lost to Madison Keys in the fourth round, was called for a coaching violation during her third-round upset of fourth seed Angelique Kerber.

But the kiss of death came after Williams’ serve was broken again in the seventh game of the second set. It was then that she went after Ramos, a highly-regarded, well-respected longtime tour umpire.

“How dare you insinuate that I was cheating,” Williams screamed about an incident that had happened more than 20 minutes earlier. “You owe me an apology. For you to attack my character is something wrong. You are a liar.”

Williams then said to Ramos, “Don’t speak to me,” and she sat in her chair seething. Ramos looked straight ahead. The whole affair could have ended there had Serena chosen to simply go play. Instead she rose from her chair and opted to escalate the situation, shouting at Ramos, “You stole a point from me. You’re a thief too.” It was then that Ramos gave her the game penalty.

Could Ramos instead have gently warned Serena at that point that her foot—and mouth—were perilously close to the line and that she was in danger of incurring a third code violation and game penalty? Perhaps. Would a final admonishment have stopped her rant? Who knows. The fact is, though, that Ramos was doing what he was assigned to do. He followed the directives as clearly spelled out in the Grand Slam Rule Book.

HIGHLIGHTS: Serena Williams steals the spotlight in the US Open final

There are many, including Billie Jean King, Chrissie Evert and CoCo Vandeweghe, who have criticized Ramos for invoking the penalty against coaching in the first place. They say that everyone does it, and they’re right. It’s allowed on the WTA tour (but not the ATP) and even permitted in the Junior US Open where young players are still developing their games and their minds.

You can complain about the rules. You can change the rules. But you can’t re-invent the rules in the middle of a match. What do we say to our loved ones when they are caught speeding and they argue that everyone else was going just as fast? Too bad, you got caught.

Serena is not the first player to launch an on-court tirade. They happen all the time. Roger Federer produced a curse-filled tirade about the challenge system during his final-round loss to Juan Martin del Potro at the 2009 US Open. Andre Agassi once spit at the umpire’s chair in the old Louis Armstrong Stadium, then insisted it was an accident. John McEnroe was defaulted from the 1990 Australian Open for a massive display of unsportsmanlike conduct during a match against Mikael Pernfors. And Fabio Fognini was expelled from last year’s US Open after he called chair umpire Louise Engzell names that could never be repeated in print. For Serena to suggest that her treatment was gender-related is just plain wrong.

Serena knows the rules. She has played the game for 20 years and has been penalized before. At the 2009 US Open, she was docked a game for unsportsmanlike conduct while playing Kim Clijsters in the semifinals. In that instance, it was her expletive-filled attack on a lineswoman who called a foot fault on her with Serena down 5-6, 15-30 in the second set. Serena was not defaulted from that match, as some have suggested. But she was penalized a game, and it happened to be match game. For that transgression, she was fined close to $100,000 and there was talk at the time of banning her from upcoming majors.

Serena has spent a great deal of time over the last several months espousing what she has learned by being a mother. One of the mandates of motherhood is counting to 10 and giving our children the opportunity to calm down from a temper tantrum. We tell them there will be consequences for their actions, like a time out.

Perhaps Serena needed a time out Saturday night. Instead, when she was asked about the teachable moment she would tell her daughter one day, her response was that you have to stand up for what you believe in. What she should have fought for was regaining her own composure and grace. She is, after all, one of the great ambassadors of our sport. Women all over the world, especially mothers, look up to her. What a pity if one bad moment could make them now look down on her.

Many have suggested that Serena showed great grace and maturity in de-escalating a rambunctious crowd during the trophy ceremony. She also hugged and congratulated Osaka, who played the match of her life and deserved the win. By then, however, Osaka was in tears. She apologized to the crowd for denying Williams her record-tying 24th major. She then cried again during her post-match press conference when asked why she apologized.

“I know, like she really wanted to have her 24th Grand Slam, right?” Osaka said while wiping her eyes with her sleeve. “Everyone knows this. It’s on the commercials, it’s everywhere.”

Osaka has nothing to apologize for. She didn’t steal the victory, she earned it.

The only thievery that occurred on Saturday night was that Osaka was robbed of her chance to truly celebrate her U.S. Open win.

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