Will Serena Confrontation with US Open Umpire Change the Sport Again?

 

Before digging into the controversy of last night’s US Open Women’s Singles final, once again, let’s focus first on Naomi Osaka. The 20-year-old Osaka not only played a superlative match in her first ever major final, but also endured an unexpected storm, and did not allow it to distract her from eventually winning the title. Osaka is a great champion and many feel this is will be the first of many major titles for her.

Yet, once again, Serena Williams finds herself in the middle of controversy at the US Open, and once again with an umpire. In this case Carlos Ramos.

His first warning for coaching, at Patrick Mouratoglou, who Williams wasn’t even aware that he was sending her a signal, escalated into a point penalty for racquet abuse, then followed by a game penalty when an irate Williams called him “a thief” during a changeover. Osaka went on to win 6-2, 6-4, but the whole incident left everyone watching and the players feeling rather grim after the match concluded.

Even after Osaka won, the hail of boos from an angry Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd, almost ruined the trophy ceremony with both Osaka and Williams in tears. Until Williams asked the crowd to not boo anymore and instead, celebrate the achievement that Osaka just earned.

After the match, the dramatic episode was deconstructed and analyzed at length with many commentators and fans offering their own viewpoint on what happened and what should have happened. In my opinion, the game penalty was unnecessary. Yet Ramos, being the umpire, felt that Williams calling him “a thief”, constituted verbal abuse at an official, and thus deserved the penalty.

Ramos being a stickler, almost to the letter, of the rules is nothing new. Although he is a very well respected umpire, he does have a history of calling warnings and penalties at players for what almost seem, to others, rather inoffensive offenses. At last year’s French Open, he handed both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic time violations on their serves that many felt was excessive. At the 2016 Summer Olympics, he gave a code violation to Andy Murray after he said “stupid umpiring.” The list goes on.

Umpire controversies at this year’s US Open are nothing new.

Earlier in the event, umpire Mohamed Lahyani raised many eyebrows when he jumped down out his of chair to literally counsel Nick Kyrgios in his second round match. While Lahyani later said that he did so out of concern for Kyrgios’ health, Lahyani telling the mercurial Australian “You are great for tennis.” didn’t sound like a medical question, more so than a coaching pep talk. Kyrgios, who was losing, suddenly started playing a lot better and ending up defeating Pierre-Hughes Herbert who was none too happy about Lahyani’s intervention.

Umpires are human and will decide how they, and they alone, will oversee a match. In Lahyani’s case, he likes to take a very personal approach, and at times, likes to help and advise players during a situation, which is not exactly an umpire’s job. Ramos, is the total opposite, almost machine-like in the way he administers cold, logical decisions based on the code, not computer code, but the code of conduct. “If player does this, then player must be given this penalty.” A player’s emotions, the surroundings, etc. are not part of the code, and therefore, not part of the equation, or the solution.

At the end of her press conference, Williams said she felt that Ramos’ decisions exemplified a double standard in how men’s versus women’s matches are officiated and that she would continue to fight for women’s rights. All-time great Billie Jean King also spoke out on what she viewed as a double standard in the match.

Williams’ issues with an umpire at the US Open years ago ultimately led to a big change in how tennis matches are officiated. The 2004 US Open quarterfinal that Williams lost to Jennifer Capriati featured horrendous calls by umpire Mariana Alves. After the match, the USTA apologized and later suspended Alves from calling any more matches during the event.

That match, in many ways, paved the way for the development and later implementation of the Hawk-Eye system. A system that was utilized on all courts at this year’s US Open. Could we see another change in how matches are officiated after this recent controversy?

It’s possible. The US Open experimented this year with allowing on-court coaching during qualifying and also implemented the shot clock to help speed up the time players take to serve (although it’s hard to tell yet if the shot clock is actually doing so). With technology being relied up more and more, could we see a time when all linespeople are replaced with Hawk-Eye at tour level and major events, as it was during this year’s World Team Tennis matches? It wouldn’t be a surprise.

That just leaves the umpire. And what kind of umpire does tennis want as it goes deeper into the 21st century while relying more and more on technology to speed up the game and capture the interest of more fans? An umpire with empathy that takes into account all the intangible factors, including a player’s temperament, before making a decision? Or a clear, logical umpire, or a robot for that matter, that arrives at the same decision regardless of who is playing, strictly based on the code, both the written code of conduct for the sport and the written computer code that such a electronic umpire would rely upon?

That’s a decision for the sport to make. Until then, let the last words on this for now be similar to what Williams said during the trophy ceremony. This is Naomi Osaka’s moment, so let’s all take the time to celebrate her and her well-deserved accomplishment in becoming, at last, a Grand Slam champion.

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