Monday, September 10, 2018

One More Voice Weighing in on Serena Williams at the 2018 US Open: From Start to Finish

I don't know a 19th hole in America that wasn't talking about the 2018 Womens' Final at the US Open in its aftermath. Naomi Osaka defeated Serena Williams 6-2, 6-4 in what was much more than an upset. Radio, TV, newsprint, highlight (and lowlight) reels, confer this championship match was a lose-lose. A friend shared the Washington Post article At U.S. Open, power of Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka is overshadowed by an umpire’s power play by the four-time AP Sportswriter of the year Sally Jenkins. I think he knows that I a) appreciate great sportswriting and b) am interested in reading all things, Serena Williams. 
I spent much of 24 hours after the match deconstructing what transpired under the lights in Queens, NY. Curious to learn what Jenkins'  "Sports Perspective" might offer, as of 9:00 a.m. PDT on the morning after the match, there were 5.7k comments. 5700 different insights, questions, complaints, judgments and jeers and jabs. 5,700! By the time I got home that evening, the number had grown to 7.1k. I have asked myself: Why do so many people feel the need to weigh in? And in the spirit of equal opportunity, How am I any different? In other words: Why write a posting about another sporting Boogate when the market must be saturated? Simple answer is because it's Serena. The longer answer is...because it's Serena. Here's what I got.

1. From the start....
Distraction seemed to find Serena from the get-go of the 2018 US Open. On August 25, French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli announced the French Open will be introducing a new, more restrictive dress code moving forward. He explained this decision by saying ‘’I think that sometimes we’ve gone too far” and “[the catsuit] will no longer be accepted. One must respect the game and the place.’’ Though it was largely understood that Williams wore the attire for a functional purpose—preventing blood clots—Serena was unencumbered by the decision. She said "We already talked. We have a great relationship," Williams said of Giudicelli, laughing as she added, "Everything is fine, guys" and instead, Serena found a new flair in wearing a tutu.
I am a teacher who enforces a dress code. I play golf at a club that does no differently. I believe the purpose of a dress code is to establish a standard—a line in the sand that deems what is and what is not acceptable or appropriate. Though individuals will always challenge the standard and/or make a case against it (or for it), what bothers me about this particular instance is that once again, people were more interested in what Serena is wearing than in her game. I would rather we talk about how fast and hard she serves the ball. How many aces does she average per match? Is she playing doubles with her sister in the tourney? And yet, I also know that fashion is of both personal and professional interest for Serena and Venus. For example, Venus is a regular attendee at Fashion Week in New York. I do not want to take away their passion from them...but I don't want to let that be what drives the conversation about these athletes. I would sincerely like to ask them both their thoughts on this matter.

2. The way we talk about Serena
It isn't uncommon to comment on an athlete's physical stature, especially when you meet them "en vivo." I will never forget running into Steph Curry at the Olympic Club. His height and weight are public information and yet, my take away is that he's leaner and even a little taller than expected. After the University of Notre Dame's Football 101, I couldn't wait to tell Irish fans about the physicality of several players: Myles Bokin, Chase Claypool and even Brandon Wimbush. When QB2 Ian Book told me he played lacrosse in high school, I could see how that might be true, again based on his size and stature. Therefore, why would I expect talk about Serena Williams to be much different? I often mention that Venus is 6'1" and Serena is my height, standing 5'8". All good, right? Wrong.

When people talk about Serena Williams they invariably use the word "big." They say, "She is BIG...she's so big." "She has big muscles, big things, the woman is big." My question: Why big?

I find the usage of the term "big" to be pejorative. Why aren't we describing her as strong and muscular? I do not believe I am splitting hairs here. Why can't we say that she is athletic and built? Instead, too often, we use the word that I myself—as a woman—would prefer not to be used to describe me. I do not use this word to describe Serena, either.

Granted, "big" is an improvement over descriptors—such as "beast' or "Amazon" that have been associated with Ms. Williams in the past. I would prefer that we pay attention to how we talk about one of the greatest women to play the game. Thank you.

3. Serena has multiple personas and attitudes
In the documentary "Venus and Serena" the younger Williams admits to having multiple personas and attitudes, each of who has her own name and personality. She said,
First there's 'psycho Serena.' You don't want to meet her. She's on the court, she's at practice, she's in the match. She's an awesome athlete. Next, there's Summer (Diaz). Summer helps me out a lot. If I have to write long letters....Summer moved to England and now has a British accent. The one that's really mean is Megan. You don't want to run into Megan. Then there's Takwanda. Takwanda is rough; she is NOT Christian. She is from the 'hood. She played the 2009 US Open. I wasn't there, but I heard about it. 
At this point, the video flashes back to the foot fault called against Williams and how she responded. The video bleeps out several of the words she had for the official. Oracene Price, Williams mother said "Takwanda got loose. Uh oh...."

It might be helpful in the mental game to do what Serena does. However, many times, she has come undone in these moments. Williams is not the only athlete who struggles with keeping her composure, but it's both a liability and something she must continually seek to improve.
I think Serena could have walked by Ramos in the umpire chair and shared her disdain. I don't think in that moment it would have been inappropriate for her to call him a thief or ask for an apology. However, this is not the choice Serena made. She couldn't let it go; she baited him and her blood continued to boil hotter and faster. Knowing her multiple personalities she should have bid Jakwanda farewell when she sat down for the change over at 4-3.

4. Serena Hates Losing More Than She Enjoys Winning
Her distaste for losing has fueled her entire career. Similar to Wimbledon, Serena found herself getting beaten in a Grand Slam final match. And, given that this match would move her a win closer to own the record for the most single's titles in women's tennis history (that would be 25), losing this one tastes bitter. I think it's fair to believe the Serena was frustrated with herself and with her opponent who, 16 years her junior, played outstandingly well. Throwing a coaching violation into this mix was kindle to the fire. Gaining a game and then losing it, prompted the racquet abuse. Adding up that total: two penalties and one changeover—where she had to walk by the chair umpire—well, we saw the embers, and ultimately, what burned....which leads me to...

5. I don't cheat to win, I'd rather lose. 
In their confrontation over the coaching violation, Serena held her ground in telling Ramos, "I don't cheat to win, I'd rather lose." I believe Serena. I do. I do not believe she was looking to her coach Patrick Mouratoglou for input, tips or what to do next. Tennis players are allowed to receive coaching during a match, during the changeover. Serena rarely asks for assistance, no one knows her own game better than she does...or maybe Venus or Richard Williams. Her coaches have traditionally been individuals who keep her in line and point her toward her best self.  And yet, what has added a layer of intrigue to this fire is that Mouratoglou told TV analyst Pam Shriver, "I'm honest, I was coaching."

To me, this instance speaks to those rare events in life when two conflicting claims can both be true. Like so many other coaches, Mouratoglou was coaching during the match. Given that this penalty is so rarely enforced I do not doubt his gestures and his body language, his personality and his hopes manifest itself into action. If this is deems coaching, so be it. Maybe tennis will face a new era, like the one the NFL is in. What is a hit? What is a catch? What is coaching?  Regardless of what he may or may not have been offering, I find it both strange that at no other time in the tournament did a chair umpire call this penalty (you could say the stakes were higher) and that it would be called against an athlete who didn't use that to her advantage. There are many ways to cheat in tennis, this isn't one I'm concerned about.

5. Lessons for us
Every athlete, every sport demands its own kind of fact-finding. I'll never forget what my own cousin a longtime basketball player told me: "you always got to test the ref. That's part of the game,"  Her words made me laugh because her dad is a basketball referee. In MLB, hitters find out the umpire's strike zone. We wish the standards were entirely objective, but unfortunately, subjectivity rears it's pretty or ugly face. Williams and her coach knew the reputation of Carlos Ramos. It bears paying attention to, so you know what you are getting into, even when you don't.  Knowledge is indeed power.

And yet, even the biggest lessons will emerge beyond the ones I have named here: the words we use, the notion of a standard, working through our mental game, how we win and how we lose. We are still battling sexism and double standards. We still need officials to enforce rules and standards—how we ensure the best for the game and for the contestants?

Serena has reached the echelon of athletes we refer to by just one name. She will be will Osaka. Tennis and many more 19th holes await.

Photo Credits
Osaka and Williams

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