the body politic

Serena Williams and the Game That Can’t Be Won (Yet)

What rage costs a woman.

Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

I don’t care much about the rules of tennis that Serena Williams was accused of violating at Saturday night’s U.S. Open final. Those rules were written for a game and for players who were not supposed to look or express themselves or play the game as beautifully and passionately as either Serena Williams or the young woman who eventually beat her, 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, do. They are rules written for a sport that, until Williams and her sister came along, was dominated by white players, a sport in which white men have violated those rules in frequently spectacular fashion and rarely faced the kind of repercussions that Williams — and Osaka — did on Saturday night.

Chair umpire Carlos Ramos first issued Williams a warning for purportedly having gotten “coaching,” via a hand signal from her coach Patrick Mouratoglou in the stands. This was a mystifying call, so common are coaches’ hand gestures to their players, so unlikely was it that Williams had seen the gesture from across the court, or that it would have had any impact on her game. It was a call that felt designed to provoke and diminish perhaps the greatest tennis player of all time, during a year in which she has made a return to the sport after having had a baby, come close to dying after a postpartum hematoma, and lost her No. 1 seed as a result of her absence from the game.

Ramos’s censure of Williams on Saturday night cannot be disentangled from her gender and race any more than the other recent obstacles she’s faced, from the physical toll of pregnancy, to her profession’s status-tax on it, to her higher risk of maternal mortality and postpartum complication. Because in making the coaching call, in the midst of a match she was playing against a newcomer who looked likely to beat her fair and square, the umpire insinuated that Serena was herself not playing fair and square. That made her livid. And one thing black women are never allowed to be without consequence is livid.

Of course she was mad! She was enraged by being called a cheater, furious at the suggestion that her stature, in this sport that has made her feel so unwelcome even as she has dominated and redefined it, has in any way been anything other than earned. And so, breathless with rage, she said, “I don’t cheat to win; I’d rather lose.” Over and over, she repeated, sometimes pointing her finger at him, “You owe me an apology. You owe me an apology.”

It was her anger that wound up costing her materially in the game: After Williams broke her racket in frustration after losing a serve, which without the first coaching violation would have merited a warning, Ramos docked her a point; in response, still furious primarily at the suggestion that she had cheated, she called him a “thief.” For this comparatively mild epithet he penalized her by taking away a full game.

So during a naturally supercharged Grand Slam final between veteran superstar and the young woman trying to unseat her, a male umpire prodded Serena Williams to anger and then punished her for expressing it. In doing so, he took from her not just the point, not just the game, but ultimately the tournament, even if — and this seems likely — she would have lost it anyway. She was punished for showing emotion, for defiance, for being the player she has always been — driven, passionate, proud, and fully human.

Fully human just like Jimmy Connors, whose famous late-career drive to the U.S. Open semifinals in 1991 included him screaming at the chair umpire, “You’re a bum! I’m out here playing my butt off at 39 years old” and later calling him — perplexingly — “an abortion.” Connors’s contemporary, John McEnroe, famously shattered a thousand rackets and uttered a thousand expletives at umpires. His anger was his calling card, a trademark. In 2008, Nicholas Dawidoff wrote in the New York Times about that famous temper, “For a lot of younger people, especially, the McEnroe out there raging and smashing rackets could express all the displeasure at bad things in the world that they were too inhibited to disclose.”

Serena’s rage is also an expression of displeasure at the bad things in the world, her wrath channeling far broader impulses to defy those rules designed and enforced by, yet so rarely forcefully applied to, white men. As she said at the press conference after the game, “I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things, and I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality … For me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game? … It was a sexist remark. He’s never took a game from a man because they said thief. For me, it blows my mind. But I’m going to continue to fight for women.”

But it’s not simply that those who are angry at the kinds of things Serena Williams is angry about are “too inhibited” to disclose their fury. It’s also that they are told all the time — like when they watch a tennis final — that if they do permit themselves to rage, even if that rage pales in comparison to the rage of their male peers, their white predecessors, that they will face reprimand. Women are made to understand, all the time, how their reasonable expression of vexation might cost them the game. Women’s challenge to male authority, and especially black women’s challenge to authority, is automatically understood as a threat, a form of defiance that must be quashed.

As Sally Jenkins put it about Ramos, writing in the Washington Post on Saturday night, “He couldn’t take it. He wasn’t going to let a woman talk to him that way. A man, sure. Ramos has put up with worse from a man.” Recalling that just last year, Rafael Nadal had told off Ramos without it costing him a match, Jenkins went on, “But he wasn’t going to take it from a woman pointing a finger at him and speaking in a tone of aggression.”

Women have so much to point fingers about, so many reasons to speak in aggressive tones. In her press conference, Williams mentioned Alizé Cornet, who was hit with a code violation at the Open last week for having briefly taken her shirt off, to turn it back to front, on court, something that men do regularly. Williams did not mention how the catsuit she wore to the French Open — which she had described as both “Wakanda inspired” and a tribute to “all the moms out there who had a tough pregnancy and had to come back and try to be fierce,” and which also had medical functionality, since she has been plagued by blood clots since her 2011 pulmonary embolism — had prompted the French Open to alter its dress code, banning any similar dress in future.

The point isn’t about the catsuit or the shirt or the broken racket or even the U.S. Open title. It’s about the ways in which women’s — and especially nonwhite women’s — dress and bodies and behavior and expression and tone are still deemed unruly if they do not conform to the limited view of femininity established by men, especially if that unruliness suggests a direct threat to male authority.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment on Saturday night was watching Serena Williams work to clean up the mess. After losing to Osaka — 16 years her junior, Haitian-Japanese, looking traumatized at having beaten her childhood idol to win her first Grand Slam in such a perverted fashion — Williams stood beside her as the stadium erupted in boos. Williams spoke to the crowd, asked them to stop booing. “I just want to tell you guys she played well and this is her first Grand Slam. Let’s not boo anymore. We will get through this. No more booing. Congratulations, Naomi.” Williams was working to ensure that young Osaka was getting what some in tennis have had such a hard time offering her: respect, pure admiration, and the acknowledgment that her remarkable achievement was earned and legitimate. Both women were crying.

This has been the ask of women, and most especially, of nonwhite women, since the beginning of time: Take the diminution and injustice and don’t get mad about it; if you get mad, you will get punished for it, and then you will be expected to fix it, to make sure everyone is comfortable again.

In her press conference, Williams said, her voice again breaking, “I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and that wants to express themselves and they want to be a strong woman and they’re going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s gonna work out for the next person.”

As I listened to Williams say this, so swift to contextualize the events of the night as part of a longer, slower process, extending back into our past and deep into the future, as I heard her situate the policing of her anger not as a miscarriage of justice or even as a bad call in a tennis match, but rather as a lifeline thrown, in her own defeat, to another generation, I thought immediately about something Brittney Cooper, Rutgers professor of women’s and gender studies, wrote in her book Eloquent Rage, her stunning paean to black feminist anger.

“Watching Serena play,” Cooper writes, “is like watching eloquent rage personified. Her shots are clear and expressive. Her wins are exultant. Her victories belong to all of us, even though she’s the one who does all the work … That’s kind of how it feels to be a Black woman. Like our victories belong to everyone, even though we do all the work.”

On Saturday, even when it wasn’t a victory, she was still doing all the work.

Serena Williams and the Game That Can’t Be Won (Yet)