Since I usually end up cheering for victories by underdogs, I admit I wanted Naomi Osaka to win the U.S. Open. She was facing a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in Serena Williams whose prior victories showed she had more experience, more powerful strokes and, ultimately, a preternatural determination to win based in part, I suspect, on her awareness that her time of dominance in women’s tennis is in its final phase.
Sadly, mostly for Osaka, the match was marred by controversy that could have, and should have, been avoided.
First, and I think most important, Serena Williams knows the rules of tennis. After so many years and matches, she is conclusively presumed to know the rules as well as she knows anything. She therefore knew that the rules forbade coaching from the stands and don’t depend on whether the player “knew” about the coaching. Her coach admitted he was sending her hand signals to move into the net more aggressively. So, Serena “broke” the coaching rule and was properly, in the technical sense, assessed a warning, the first stage of an escalating set of penalties for repetition of rule breaches.
Now, and this is really the crux of the matter, the “no coaching” rule is a joke. It is violated routinely for decades in matches great and small without actually assessing a penalty, though that does occur at times. And that is the real problem. Could the Chair Umpire have handled the coaching differently? Of course, but the root of the problem here is the rule, not the particular umpire.
If there is going to be a “no coaching” rule, it should be enforced all the time or abandoned. Given the difficulties of enforcement in any evenhanded way, abandonment is the better outcome. Why have a rule that is randomly and erratically enforced, especially when it affects the outcome of a match? Imagine what would have happened if the coaching yesterday had been detected on match point against Serena and the Chair Umpire stopped the match short of playing the last point. As a tennis fan, you would get the chills thinking of such a situation but it is entirely possible with the current coaching rule.
Second, Serena surely knows that destroying a racket is an automatic penalty and that if it’s a second violation in the match, it results in award of a point to the other player. She has done it a number of times in big matches and, despite penalties that would blanche players with less wealth, she has joked about it. https://bit.ly/2wLFQ3b
Yes, yes, it was an emotional moment and all that, but Serena Williams is the dominant player in women’s tennis and should be able to avoid destroying a racket on the court, no matter how frustrated she might be. If she was completely out of control of her emotions, she could have requested an injury timeout to get some time to calm down. So, the second penalty was clearly correct.
Third, the sting of the first penalty lingered with Serena who continued to harangue the Chair Umpire for an apology about the first penalty that Serena believed impugned her integrity as a player and was discriminatory. Again, while her exasperation was understandable (the coaching rule, as argued above, should be abolished – it inevitably led to this moment), it strikes me that making a social issue out of that situation was inappropriate. Serena’s emotions were out of control. Serena has never called her coach down for a court-side consultation even when allowed by the rules, but this might actually have been a good moment to request that help. I get the “go it alone” thing, but sometimes it’s smart to ask for help.
Finally, while I believe Serena Williams was ultimately responsible for the situation, I also believe her post-match maturity and grace toward Osaka was remarkable. I suspect she realized her responsibility and understood she should set aside her own anger and grief to try to recapture the moment that Osaka had earned. Osaka was plainly mortified at the situation she played no part in creating. Serena tried to comfort Osaka putting her arm around her shoulders with a smile. She asked the crowd to stop booing and recognize Osaka’s victory as legitimately earned. Those acts of sportsmanship, along with the brilliant, steely performance of a 20-year old in her first Grand Slam final, are what should be remembered about this match.
And please, please, change the “no coaching” rule. Help save tennis from itself.