11 Sep 2018 20:30 IST

Serena Williams lost, and not just the US Open final

Japan's Naomi Osaka poses with the championship trophy, on Saturday, September 9, in New York   -  REUTERS

When our sports heroes make mistakes, we defend them because we cannot fathom they are fallible too

As a long-time fan of Serena Williams, I was disappointed to see what happened at the US Open Final. She was not only easily beaten by Naomi Osaka, a 20-year-old rising star from Japan — but Serena also showed how hollow she was in defeat. In the process, the world failed to shine the spotlight on the character of a humble individual who actually apologised to the crowd because she felt responsible in denying Serena the victory everyone seemed to expect.

This is what is wrong with sports today. As the last vestige of television-viewing that can capture live action and drama, sport has become more about cameras and stars, and less about the game itself. Fame, money, and power have corrupted many athletes and Serena is the classic example of what happens when one thinks too much about oneself.

ESPN, which has rights to broadcast the US Open series of matches in Toronto/Montreal, Cincinnati, and New York, had built up the drama around Serena’s return to New York for weeks. The first sign that media outlets were going to squeeze every ounce of the Williams sisters came when she was placed in a draw where she could potentially meet her sister Venus in the round of 32.

Commentators, during all the early round matches — even when they were covering other players — salivated about what it would be to have the two sisters meet up in the third round. And true enough, this happened, during Prime Time on a Friday leading into a holiday weekend. The contest turned out to be a complete dud. Serena vanquished her sister 6-1, 6-2.

Major build-up

New York City set up billboards celebrating Serena’s return as a mom to the world of professional tennis. Would she win her 24th Grand Slam? There were shots of her and her little baby, Olympia. JP Morgan Chase ran an ad campaign with Serena for a new smartphone app, where Serena could get cash from an ATM without an ATM card. There was another ad featuring her where Chase celebrated all mothers with a hashtag #thismama.

But for long-time watchers, Serena’s accomplishments as a great champion who made it to two successive grand slam finals on her return after becoming a mother was overshadowed by history. This was not the first time that women players were returning to the top of world’s tennis after delivering a child. In 2009, former world#1 Kim Clijsters (from Belgium) returned to the tour following the birth of her daughter and conveniently won the US Open. That match too featured Serena — and her temper tantrums — when she foot-faulted on match point, threatened the lines judge, and faced a hefty fine.

There are others. Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong won Grand Slams in the 1970s, returning to the tour after becoming mothers in an era when the world ignored such details.

All about Serena

When Serena stepped on to the court against Osaka on Saturday, everything was all about Serena. Fans forgot that in a women’s tennis contest, the person across the net is also a woman. New Yorkers had taken the media bait and wanted to play along, anticipating the big shots — not tennis shots, but camera shots — when this mama would hoist the US Open trophy again.

Serena had had a relatively easy draw all the way and there was even fear that she was going to face real competition for the first time, facing Osaka. And that is what happened. Osaka dominated the first set — serve, ground strokes, baseline shots, movement around the court — that Serena tamely lost 6-2.

During the second game of the second set, Serena was called out by the chair umpire for receiving coaching, via hand signals, from her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. WTA rules do not allow coaching from the stands but Mouratoglou, who was signalling with both his hands in a repetitive motion backward and forward, was urging Serena to go more to the net.

Losing her way

Carlos Ramos, the veteran Portuguese umpire who has officiated numerous Grand Slam matches, issued Serena a warning. She became furious and argued with the umpire, saying he was questioning her character. She said she would rather lose a match than cheat. During the changeover, she kept talking to him and invoked her daughter’s name in the conversation. But everything was still fine because the umpire’s ruling was just a warning.

Serena seemed to draw strength from the chat and played a brilliant game to break Osaka to get ahead. The crowd and the commentators went crazy. Here was the comeback to crown the queen.

With the roof of Arthur Ashe stadium shut because of rain, Naomi Osaka showed her class. With practically everyone — except her family — in the crowd against her, she calmly broke back.

The lights and cameras were back on Serena; and she did not disappoint. She took her racket and threw it down with force enough to break it. This was hardly the image that Chase would want of #theirmama — an upset woman taking things out on a lifeless object which has brought her her millions.

The chair umpire calmly issued her a penalty for racquet abuse causing her to lose a point. This is what happens in tennis. The first time you get a warning. The next time you lose a point. Then, the game, set and the entire match.

Back in her chair, Serena continued to argue with the umpire — but this time she called him a liar. And then she said the most consequential words of her career when she accused Ramos of being a thief, because he stole a point!

Rules are rules

As regards code violation for verbal abuse, the WTA Tennis rule book is clear. Under Article III, Section P, “verbal abuse” is defined as “a statement about an official, opponent, sponsor, spectator or other person that implies dishonesty or is derogatory, insulting or otherwise abusive.” If calling someone a thief does not imply dishonesty, it is hard to imagine what else would. Try going to a courtroom and calling the judge a thief. You will likely be found in contempt.

So Ramos, unflinching, called her out again, this time awarding Osaka a game. The match turned now to 5-3. The crowd booed. Serena finally sought the help of the match referee. But the referee knew that once a violation was issued, it could not be revoked. Dejected, Serena returned to the baseline and three minutes later, Osaka beat her 6-4 to win the championship.

Serena refused to shake hands with the umpire after the match and warned him that she expected an apology from him. Meanwhile, her coach, Mouratoglou was telling Pam Shriver of ESPN that he did coach Serena after all but that “Serena did not see him”; so, as far as Serena was concerned, she was not being coached.

At the award ceremony, Osaka was in tears. Katrina Adams of the United States Tennis Association so glorified Serena that she seemed to forget for a moment that Osaka had won the championship. A tweet put out by the USTA after the ceremony was remarkable — it was all about what a great person Serena was and it mentioned Osaka only in passing.

What happened?

At the post-match press conference, Serena sought to characterise the entire controversy as one about gender equity. No man had ever been penalised a game for calling the umpire a thief, so why was she? Well, it turns out that no man had ever called any umpire a thief. She then said that she was being penalised because the chair umpire was a man. But this charge was suspect because Ramos has been extremely strict in his career, disciplining many more men than women, most famously Rafa Nadal. Also, remember the match against Kim Clijsters in 2009? The chair umpire then was a woman.

We all make mistakes in life, but we acknowledge them, learn from the experience, pay a penalty and move on. But when our sports super heroes make mistakes, we seem to defend them because we cannot fathom that they are in fact, as fallible as the rest of us. Credit the crazy TV cameras for this frenzy even as thousands of extremely talented athletes in dozens of sports labour the hard way to win their laurels, unseen, and unsung.