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Sunday, 20 January, 2019

Hard to defend Serena's US Open final outburst

The Thursday column

Serena Williams argues with umpire Carlos Ramos during the US Open final
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Serena Williams behaved appallingly during the US Open final on Saturday and it was inexcusable despite so many people having subsequently rushed to excuse her conduct.

Even as someone who watches sport as much as I can, it is impossible to be across everything. Something has to give and in terms of mainstream sports I don’t have the time or inclination to follow obsessively, tennis gets the elbow.

But I was interested to see how Williams got on against Naomi Osaka so I used my Amazon Prime facility to watch what I thought was live coverage (but which turned out to be so far behind what was actually happening it’s quite possible Williams has had another baby in the meantime).

Having dropped the first set it was looking like Williams was getting back into the groove in the second, but then all hell broke loose in one of the most astonishing episodes I have ever seen in a sporting event.

First, Williams’s coach was caught gesturing towards her, possibly in an attempt to get her to adjust her position when receiving serves.

Personally, I think it’s odd that tennis players cannot be coached. I’d have someone sitting next to them offering advice while they drink their Robinsons Barley Water between changes of ends, but the rule is clear and understood. Your coach cannot coach you.

Even the coach in question, Patrick Mouratoglou, admitted he was doing it, thus rendering Williams’ claim that she hadn’t seen it irrelevant.

Umpire Carlos Ramos issued a warning, as the rules demand he should. Williams took it badly and before long, with her serving going to pot, she angrily smashed her racket on the ground, which earned her a second warning and therefore the deduction of a point.

This caused her to really lose the plot and she told Ramos: “You owe me an apology. You will never ever ever be on another court of mine as long as you live. You are a liar. Say it, say you’re sorry. You stole a point from me. You’re a thief, too.”

Ramos, calmly enforcing the rules, informed her she had forfeited the next game as a result of her outburst, and she then went on to lose the second set and the match.

It was amazing, stunning even. But it was all perfectly logical. Each rising penalty was clearly incurred and clearly explained. She got what she deserved for an abysmal meltdown.

And it did not end there. She claimed in her press conference she was the victim of sexist behaviour and was backed up by various people who believe male players are given more slack when they break the rules.

This may be true - as I say I don’t follow tennis closely enough to be able to have a view on whether that is true, although I read with interest in the aftermath of the furore a set of stats taken from a sample of more than 3,500 matches involving men and women played this decade.

These figures showed that a penalty of some sort was applied by the umpire in 0.69 per cent of all women’s matches in the sample compared to 0.95 per cent in men’s matches. 

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It can be argued that men play more sets than women (best-of-five in grand slams) but that still doesn’t paint a picture that hints at anything remotely approaching a bias towards penalising women players with a disproportionately high frequency.

But if Williams or indeed the supportive WTA believe this to be the case they should gather some conflicting evidence and present it to the ruling bodies. In the meantime they should accept that umpires are perfectly entitled - indeed are duty bound - to apply the rules as Ramos did on Saturday without wars erupting.

I found the support for Serena peculiar and excessive. Her claim that she is on a crusade to fight for women is laudable but is undermined by her behaviour at Flushing Meadows in 2009 when she told a female line judge: “I swear to God I'll f***ing take the ball and shove it down your f***ing throat.”

Williams and her sister Venus have, it goes without saying, had to fight harder than almost anyone else to reach their particular sporting pinnacle. They endured hideous racism as they climbed the treacherous slopes of this hitherto almost exclusively white game.

But she is the queen of tennis, and indeed the queen of sport, and has been for years now. The fight to overcome the despicable people who attempted to halt her progress has long since been won.

It is difficult to tell whether some of her conduct these days is driven by a sense of entitlement (“you will never ever ever be on another court of mine as long as you live”) or a continuing sense of rage against all society’s existing prejudices.

As well as those outrageous comments to the line judge, she was ludicrously touchy when a journalist referred to a performance last year as “scrappy”. She threw a strop and told the reporter to apologise (the sap did).

But that was nothing compared to Saturday’s carry-on, in which she gave every impression of believing herself to be more important than the game itself.

The world has since become divided on whether this was a justified expression of defiance against sexism or simply a grotesque tantrum from someone who broke the rules but was unprepared to accept the punishment.

In the heat of the moment Williams’ main gripe appeared to be the strict application of the rules, which led her to accuse the umpire of being a thief. That in itself is unacceptable and weakens the argument that her actions were sparked by anything more than a resentment that the umpire was enforcing the rules in a fair and just manner but one that weakened her chances of winning.

I hope Williams wins another Slam. Hers is one of the most fascinating stories in all of sport and it would be good for her to remind us she can combine fantastic, triumphant tennis with exemplary conduct.

More than that, though, I want to see Osaka land another big one so she has the chance to savour a victory that is not overshadowed by her opponent’s lamentable behaviour and is not accompanied by the boos of a partisan crowd.

Let us hear football's on-pitch action 

That dramatic US Open final provided another illustration of how much more the viewer feels a part of the action when they can hear as well as just see what is going on.

Had there not been a microphone picking up on Serena Williams’ furious words we would have been sitting there guessing the precise levels of venom she was firing up towards the umpire’s chair.

Denying viewers the chance to appreciate sport with our ears as well as our eyes is absurd, and every sport broadcaster should make it a condition of all rights deals to be allowed to stick microphones wherever they like.

Rugby union is, of course, the best example of a sport that is massively enhanced by enabling us to hear what the referee and players are saying to one another.

And if those hyped-up giants can be trusted to converse in the heat of battle without swearing like Bernard Manning any sportsperson should be perfectly able to mind their language too.

So what do you say, football? What’s stopping it happening? Nearly 30 years ago David Elleray wore a microphone for a documentary during a match between Millwall and Arsenal and the footage was fascinating, not least when Gunners skipper Tony Adams called him a cheat.

It is ridiculous that three decades later we still allow football to be a silent movie, and while players continue this habit of covering their mouths when they speak to one another the chances of the situation changing are remote.

But there should be a trial, starting perhaps with the Championship, after which the ref mic should be used universally before long, if only as a red button option.

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All hell broke loose in one of the most astonishing episodes I have ever seen in a sporting event
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