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In wake of Serena Williams episode at U.S. Open, tennis requires a hard look within


Nearly a week after Serena Williams clashed with chair umpire Carlos Ramos in the late stages of her losing effort in the U.S. Open women’s final, tennis remains roiled by an emotionally charged debate over fundamental fairness in officiating and whether sexism, conscious or not, skews the playing field.

●In Zadar, Croatia, this weekend, Ramos, who issued the penalties that ultimately cost Williams one game in her 6-2, 6-4 loss to Naomi Osaka, returned to work with the backing of the International Tennis Federation, which tapped him to officiate the Davis Cup semifinal between the United States and Croatia.

●On Friday, the London Telegraph published a data analysis of 20 years’ worth of fines at Grand Slam events that undercut Williams’s claim of gender-based bias in officiating. The data showed that men were fined for code violations (which include racket abuse, verbal abuse and other infractions) nearly three times as often as women in Grand Slam events from 1998 to 2018.

Because men play best-of-five-set matches in Grand Slams and women play best-of-three, men are typically on court longer and should be expected to incur more violations as a result. But the differential in the Telegraph’s analysis — 1,534 fines for men compared with 526 for women — can’t be explained away simply by time-on-court.

●In Australia, a newspaper widely criticized for publishing a cartoon of Williams that many deemed a racist caricature doubled down on the image by republishing it on its front page under the headline, “Welcome to PC World.”

●The global community of tennis officials is reportedly stewing over what many perceive as a lack of support from the sport’s major governing bodies.

Katrina Adams, president of the U.S. Tennis Association, hailed Williams for “class and sportsmanship” in the aftermath of her defeat and told ESPN a day later there was “no equality” in officiating. The Women’s Tennis Association echoed Adams’s sentiments.

●Sports fans worldwide, particularly in the United States, are polarized, with many condemning Williams’s outburst, others blaming Ramos’s rigid handling of the matter and nearly all baffled by exactly what the sport’s rule book bans and how it is applied.

Fault tennis — as in the International Tennis Federation and every national governing body that has a voice in the sport — for the latter.

For decades, tennis has had a rule book that is poorly understood, grants broad discretion to officials and, as a result, is capriciously applied at times. These shortcomings are compounded by an inexplicable yet seemingly inviolate tradition that chair umpires are not permitted to explain their decisions. Umpires, in fact, are prohibited from granting interviews.

That leaves a perilous void in which players can feel victimized when penalized for a violation their rivals flout without consequence — whether that’s the rarely called foot-fault, coaching violation or time violation. It also leaves a void that sports commentators — and anyone with a social-media platform — is only too happy to fill, whether espousing views based on fact or mere supposition.

In refusing to explain decisions that aren’t easily understood — an arrogance cloaked in tradition — tennis does a grave disservice to its officials, tournament promoters, players and everyone with a financial or emotional stake in the game.

The sport, in essence, is saying: “Don’t ask; just trust us. And, by the way, keep buying tickets and broadcast rights but don’t expect an explanation of penalties that may affect the outcome.”

In response to the lingering controversy over how Williams behaved and how she was treated, the communications office of the U.S. Tennis Association, which owns and operates the U.S. Open, has taken the first step toward bringing transparency to officiating. Much like the NFL and NBA, it is recommending that it be allowed to designate a pool reporter (the term for one journalist selected to represent a press corps covering an event) to ask questions of officials in circumstances that need broader clarification, according to USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier. The idea would have to be approved by a larger, internal group of USTA management and the sport’s officiating team.

Two other initiatives also should be set in motion:

First, the ITF must clarify the sport’s rule book. If foot-faults, time violations and coaching violations aren’t going to be assiduously enforced, they should be struck from the rule book. Moreover, the definition of verbal abuse must be clarified — not with a list of banned words but with a deeper explanation of whether threatening gestures, persistent haranguing or attacks on character (as opposed to profanity) warrant the call.

Second, tennis officials ought to form a union or professional organization. The head of a tennis officials’ association, for example, could explain controversial decisions, defend an official under unfair attack and lobby for better pay and working conditions if warranted.

As one veteran official, Bob Christianson, 67, who has worked 38 consecutive U.S. Opens, explained to the San Diego Union-Tribune this week: “We as officials have no spokesman or advocate for us. And we’re not supposed to talk to the press without permission. So we have no way to get our point across. We’re completely muzzled.”

Moreover, Christianson said, the prospect of an umpires’ strike against Williams’s future matches, which seemed to fizzle soon after it was rumored earlier in the week, has not been entirely abandoned. “We’re looking for an apology from Serena to the official or officials in general. And if we don’t get that, there might be a potential boycott of her next match,” Christianson told the paper.

Few would argue Ramos, a native of Portugal, is not fit to continue in the job. He did nothing technically wrong in strictly applying the rules — issuing a warning for a coaching violation; then a one-point penalty for racket abuse; and finally, upon deeming verbal abuse as Williams’s third code violation, docking her a game. Yet Ramos can and should be faulted for not exercising his discretion to issue a so-called “soft warning” and reminding Williams, after levying her second penalty, that her next infraction would be the loss of a game.

That’s where Ramos erred, in the view of former agent and tournament promoter Sara Fornaciari. Though she found Williams’s behavior inexcusable, she also faulted Ramos for not giving her a soft warning at the critical juncture — particularly after a raucously partisan New York crowd weighed in. “His job is not just to enforce the rules; it’s to keep order in the court,” Fornaciari said. “If he had given a soft warning, he could have kept himself out it.”

It wasn’t until after the USTA and Women’s Tennis Association took Williams’s side that the ITF publicly defended Ramos, issuing a statement Monday that said he “acted at all times with professionalism and integrity.” Soon after the ITF doubled down on its support by assigning Ramos to the U.S. Davis Cup semifinal.

Ramos was photographed at a pre-match event speaking with Adams, the USTA president. According to the Associated Press, Adams was overheard apologizing to Ramos on the sideline of Thursday’s draw ceremony for the event.

Adams, through a USTA spokesman, declined to comment Friday.

Given the lingering ill feelings on all sides, the U.S. Davis Cup squad hopes to avoid inflaming the issue during its semifinal against Croatia. “It’s been polarized and in some ways politicized,” U.S. captain Jim Courier told the Associated Press on Thursday. “But we have no doubt that Carlos was just enforcing the rules as he sees them.”

To Fornaciari, it was a bit surprising that the ITA gave Ramos such a high-profile assignment so quickly after the U.S. Open, particularly one involving the U.S. squad.

“There are Davis Cup matches all over the world; this [assignment] puts him right back in everybody’s face again,” Fornaciari noted. “I’m not going to watch it. I don’t want to get myself aggravated.”



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