Serena Williams will always be an icon and a champion, but her outburst had nothing to do with sexism

Published: September 13, 2018

Serena Williams shouts at chair umpire Carlos Ramos during the US Open women’s final. PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK

Will you forget it? I think not. After all, the US Open 2018 is not one to forget anytime soon. The tournament was thrilling from the start, with remarkable displays of tennis, alongside upsets and firsts. However, what will remain etched in our collective memories is the women’s singles final; a certain Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, and the chair umpire.

The 20-year-old Osaka – who had never won a grand slam before – was playing with her idol. Williams, on the other hand, is no ordinary idol. The 23-time grand slam champion is an enigma. Not only is she a champion of tennis, she is a champion of hearts – an inspiration for men and women alike. Williams has dominated women’s tennis for two decades, and her journey is as impressive as her game. She’s become a role model, a trend-setter with a big personality; she has successfully become America’s darling.

Thus, if you had to predict a winner before Saturday’s final, you would have picked Williams in a second. It was the story we all wanted to witness unfold: a 36-year-old mother of one makes a grand comeback after almost losing her life. Not only that, had Williams won, she would have made history by equalling Margaret Court’s 24 grand slam titles.

Naomi Osaka of Japan poses with Serena Williams before their Women’s Singles Finals match at the 2018 US Open. Photo: AFP

America was rooting for her. The world was rooting for her. However, as the match commenced, the young, athletic Japanese outshone Williams. Point after point, she brilliantly returned everything shot her way, winning games with her serve and big forehand until she claimed the first set. It was beautiful to watch the novice take on the champion.

Serena Williams during her match against Naomi Osaka in the Women’s Singles Final. Photo: Getty

Naomi Osaka competes against Serena Williams during US Open 2018 women’s final match on September 8, 2018. Photo: Getty

In the fifth game of the second set, however, things took a dramatic turn. Chair umpire Carlos Ramos issued Williams a code violation after he witnessed coaching. Williams denied the incident, however, her coach admitted otherwise.

Serena Williams argues Saturday with chair umpire Carlos Ramos while playing Naomi Osaka of Japan during their 2018 US Open women’s singles final match in New York. Photo: AFP

Williams then demanded an apology from the umpire, insisting she did not take coaching. Her fit of rage did not end there. She was issued a point penalty for racket abuse, and finally a game penalty for calling the referee a liar and a thief.

Serena Williams smashes her racket while playing against Naomi Osaka at the 2018 US Open in New York, Sept. 8, 2018. Photo: AFP

Serena Williams smashes her racket. Photo: AFP

What transpired after that was not pretty. Williams continued arguing with officials, accusing Ramos of sexism and claiming to fight for women’s rights. The episode has led to much conjecture and debate. Opinions remain divided and the final almost forgotten, which, by the way, Osaka won.

Serena Williams upset, arguing with chair umpire Carlos Ramos during Women’s Final match. Photo: Getty

Serena Williams argues with referee Brian Earley during her Women’s Singles final at the 2018 US Open. Photo: AFP

Is there enough evidence to suggest Ramos was sexist? Unfortunately, there isn’t. Yes, a game penalty seems harsh, but Ramos was within his jurisdiction in making that call.

The gold-badge umpire is known for being a stickler for the rules. In his three-decade-long career, the Portuguese has had contretemps with the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, as well as Novak Djokovic, who won the US Open this year. Murray was once issued a warning by Ramos for mumbling “stupid umpiring”, whereas Nadal has been issued warnings for slow play as well as coaching. Players have always bemoaned his no-nonsense application of rules; however, he continues to command their respect.

Saturday’s episode had nothing to do with race or sexism. It was an unsightly outburst from a powerful tennis icon. It is as Ramos stated,

“It’s an unhappy situation but a la carte refereeing doesn’t exist.”

Ramos is absolutely right in saying that. After all, umpires cannot and should not bend to pressure. Had Williams held her nerves like 20-year-old Osaka did, perhaps this furore could have been avoided altogether.

Serena Williams reacts during her Women’s Singles finals match against Naomi Osaka. Photo: Getty

Naomi Osaka poses with the trophy after beating Serena Williams at the US Open final on Sept. 8, 2018. Photo: Getty

Ultimately, Williams will always be an icon and a champion, but despite her insistence, last Saturday was not about sexism. It was an unfair outburst, a disregard for the opponent, a disregard for the referee, and will be remembered as a champion’s fall from grace.

Sumayia Asif

Sumayia Asif

The author is a Sub Editor for the sports desk at The Express Tribune. She tweets @SumayiaA (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Nadeem Ehsan

    I am so sorry but article was not goodRecommend

  • Syed

    Some one said a bad looser that sums up.Recommend

  • Parvez

    I agree with you ….this was a case of hubris run amok.Recommend

  • Trey

    “Is there enough evidence to suggest Ramos was sexist? Unfortunately, there isn’t.”

    This is untrue, considering there’s past video evidence of him giving a longer leash and leeway to expressive male athletes before resorting to any sort of harsh penalty. A warning is not the same as penalty.

    This is like a defense saying a hypothetical white US judge has the same no nonsense rate of incarceration of convicts from different racial backgrounds, while ignoring more jail time for black defendants compared to earlier parole for white defendants. Sure both are penalized and the judge is within his rights, however, it’s clear the judgement is not equally applied, regardless if those black defendants deserved it or not when white peers are clearly given a break. This is where the issue is at.

    I would also implore the author to re-examine how she views Serena’s expression in a societal (US and Pakistani) context too, where you focus on her behavior only negatively and as only as something irrational, without putting weight to the consequences of an umpire’s ruling which may not be consistent (this is a common complaint in US team sports, like basketball). It seems rationally reductionist and dismissive, and wouldn’t be surprised if this attitude extended towards other historically marginalized or complaining groups for fair treatment.

    Is it really ‘a fall from grace’ for a superstar female athlete without a history to argue like other male contemporaries, or your own hyperbole? Especially when she comforted the young winner after the match and articulated her complaint well that even former tennis and feminist champion Billie Jean apart from other tennis personalities agreed with her assessment?

  • Shahzad

    Article is all about reality, happened on tennis court.
    Display of fact in a simple way.Recommend

  • Ashok Kumar

    There seems something very wrong with this umpire Murray in this match. Serena Williams has had a great cool; her outburst have a great meaning.Recommend

  • Obaid

    This is a recurring behavior by Serena. She has even threatened a lines person in the past. Fact of the matter is: She was losing and couldn’t handle it. As a female of color, she resorted to using race and gender card to justify her atrocious behavior. She should have been heavily penalized. A paltry sum of $17000 is nothing.

    Also, her coach admitted to coaching her, so she had incurred multiple violations. Her attitude explains the self-entitled mindset of privileged women who use feminism as a tool to oppress males.Recommend

  • Hannah

    “A warning is not the same as penalty.” If this had been Serena Williams’s first violation in the match, it *would* have been a warning, not a game penalty, not even a point penalty. In previous matches with male players, they received warnings from Ramos because it was their first violation. And they were smart enough to stop there before they were penalized further.

    Every player should be aware of (a) who the umpire is, and that umpire’s history and (b) how many violations they have racked up in the match. If you already have a warning, then if you smash your racket, you’re going to get an automatic point penalty. That’s totally under your control. Don’t commit a violation, you won’t lose a point. If you then go on to call the umpire a thief for the automatic point penalty that would not have been assessed against you if you hadn’t smashed your racket, you are then placing yourself in the position of relying on the umpire’s mercy not to assess you a game penalty. Unfortunately for Serena Williams, Ramos was not in the mood to take further abuse from her.

    The takeaway from this incident should not be that women should be allowed to abuse umpires without consequences. The takeaway from this incident should be that players should learn to control their tempers, or take the consequences.Recommend

  • Mom2KidsDog

    “…. considering there’s past video evidence of him giving a longer leash and leeway to expressive male athletes before resorting to any sort of harsh penalty”. Evidence, please? The tennis code of conduct requires a warning on 1st violation, a point penalty on 2nd violation and a game penalty on 3rd and subsequent violations. Iff you’re saying these men only got warnings, perhaps they weren’t on their 3rd violations.Recommend

  • Trey

    It’s reported in the Guardian and Independent.

    Your assumptions can also cut both ways. Perhaps the men never got the extra violations so quickly succession in a high stakes game because they got more leeway, which is not implausible and what tennis analysts found a bit unusual.Recommend

  • Trey

    Umpires may also face consequences in being reviewed or criticized having an impact in a high stakes games, that usually does not unravel like this with other umpires Serena has played in front of. No one is making the case for abuse. They are however calling out inconsistency in the tennis world.

    Its quite possible Serena was aware of the umpire’s history moreso than we acknowledge considering he went after Venus with the same coaching insinuation a couple of years earlier, which she too found demeaning (Nadal has also complained of it and didn’t like the insinuation of cheating, though unclear if it was a warning for both). But this is not comforting. If I suspected a referee was prejudiced against me, beforehand, and seemed to be favouring my opponent unreasonably through the game, chances are there’s going to be an argument.

    Serena Williams is not some privileged uppity masculine angry black woman (a negative stereotype) that goes around accusing every tennis personality for her shortcomings the media seems to portray, which has delved into racial and sexist caricatures of her. She’s a long time champion who articulated her complaint post game well.

    She could very well be wrong in her case and it could all have been an unfortunate escalation by her, by him or on all sides, and the umpire got a raw deal. But claiming that male athletes generally have less scrutiny, is not something that’s unbelievable, and yes can have impact on outcomes, considering the way this game oddly went down where she believes had she been a male athlete, the umpire would have let her expressive outburst slide, which is debatable.

    We can dismiss it. But chances are she knows what she’s talking about (just like her harrowing experience with blood clots after giving birth, which highlighted disparity of racial treatment in hospitals), especially given the circumstances and got people talking.Recommend

  • Shamael Fraz

    It is people like Serena, who actually sabotage the feminist movement and discredit it.

    This was truly the fall of an icon.

    Thoroughly enjoyed your unbiased , balanced approach.Recommend