Serena Williams has just set back the cause of women’s equality. Not by losing her cool during the final of the US Open: women are as entitled to temper tantrums as men are. No, it was her playing of the misogyny card that has potentially harmed the cause of women. It was the fact that no sooner had the umpire imposed penalties on her for her bad behaviour than she was crying ‘Sexism!’. Such a cynical use of feministic language to try to deflect attention from one’s own behaviour does nobody any favours — not Serena herself, and certainly not women more broadly.
Serena had a rough final. She ended up losing to Naomi Osaka, a relative newcomer at the age of 20, and the first person from Japan to win a Grand Slam title. It was a great achievement for Osaka but her victory was utterly overshadowed by Serena’s egocentric behaviour. The stink started when the umpire, Carlos Ramos, gave Serena a coaching violation and deducted a point from her. He believed her coach was using hand signals to try to steer her game. Serena angrily denied this and later called Ramos a ‘liar’ and a ‘thief’. He gave her another violation, for abusing the umpire. She also smashed her racquet in anger — another violation. She ended up being fined $17,000.
None of this is particularly out of the ordinary. From McEnroe to our very own Andy Murray, tennis players often flip out. Serena herself has form: at the 2009 US Open she threatened to shove a tennis ball down a lineswoman’s throat, earning her a $10,500 fine. But what is new this time round is the way Serena branded the judgements against her as misogynistic. She accused the umpire of picking on her because she is female. Male tennis players say and do worse and they aren’t punished like this, she said.
First things first: she is entirely wrong to say male tennis players don’t get rapped on the knuckles for doing what she did. Indeed, Ramos himself, the alleged misogynist, has called out many male tennis players. At the 2017 French Open he gave a fault to Novak Djokovic for time violations and then gave him a code violation when he started yelling. In 2016 he issued a violation against Nick Kyrgios for shouting at a towel boy. At the 2016 Olympics he issued a violation against Andy Murray after the Scot muttered about ‘stupid umpiring’. Did prejudice lie behind those rulings too? Perhaps he is Scotophobic. Maybe his rulings against Djokovic were motivated by Serbophobia.
It would have been as ridiculous for Murray or Djokovic to accuse Ramos of punishing them because of their national backgrounds as it is for Serena to accuse him of punishing her because she is a woman. Ramos said not one thing about Serena’s sex when he issued violations against her. He was merely commenting on her behaviour and her verbal outburst.
Indeed, it would have been sexist if he had failed to call out her antics. If he had treated Serena differently to how he has previously treated Murray or Djokovic, perhaps out of some male sympathy for the feelings of womankind, that would have been sexist. In treating Serena exactly as he has treated male players, Ramos demonstrated his commitment to sexual equality. He has shown himself to be a better feminist than Serena, in fact: she seems to think female players should get lesser punishments than male ones, whereas Ramos clearly believes all tennis players should be treated the same.
The cynical playing of the misogyny card is terrible for women’s equality. You see it all the time these days. Emily Thornberry accusing Sky presenter Dermot Murnaghan of sexism after he asked her probing questions, when in fact he asks probing questions of all politicians. What are these feminists calling for? The treatment of women with kid gloves? A softly softly approach to female politicians? No more penalties for female sports stars? There’s a word for this: sexism. They want to create a world in which women are given an easier time than men.
I’m sorry, Serena, but it isn’t sexist to criticise you. And when you suggest it is, you trivialise the problem of sexism and hint that women aren’t really cut out for the rough and tumble of everyday competition and judgement. The fact is that you behaved badly at the Open. Your temper tantrum utterly stole the limelight from the wonderful newcomer Osaka, and your suggestion that Ramos behaved in a sexist way has potentially damaged a good umpire’s reputation. You behaved like a spoilt, moneyed egotist above the criticism of mere mortals and in the process you hurt both a young woman and an experienced man. It’s you who should apologise, not Ramos.