Billy Reed: Serena Williams a great athlete, but not a great sport

Billy Reed: Serena Williams a great athlete, but not a great sport
Serena Williams is seen in a 2013 file photo. (Source: Flickr user Doha Stadium Plus)

By BILLY REED | Contributor

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) – Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player of all time. That is indisputable. Sadly, however, she also is a hot-tempered bully whose antics ruined the championship match of the U.S. Open for all concerned, most notably Naomi Osaka, the 20-year-old victor from Japan, who grew up idolizing Serena.

In the immediate aftermath of Williams’ racket-smashing, name-calling rant against umpire Carlos Ramos, the tennis establishment rushed to her defense, accusing Ramos of sexism, among other sins, which is pretty silly considering it was a match between two women.

In an editorial for The New York Times, the great champion Martina Navratilova wrote, “I don’t believe it’s a good idea to apply a standard of ‘If men can get away with it, women should be able to, too.’ Rather, I think the question we have to ask ourselves is this: What is the right way to behave to honor our sport and respect our opponents.”

Ah, but Billie Jean King and other icons were talking about how, in their view, women are punished more harshly than their male counterparts. Maybe they’re right, and maybe not, but that’s a conversation for another day. It had nothing to do with Serena’s ugly display of lousy sportsmanship.

At 36, Serena is tied with Margaret Court with 24 career Grand Slam (French Open, Australian Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open) championships. But her best days are behind her, so she wanted badly to break the tie going into the match against Osaka, who was playing in her first Grand Slam final.

Under such circumstances, you really couldn’t blame her for using everything at her disposal to get an edge, including intimidation of the umpire. After all, she is, well, Serena and some unknown umpire had better remember that.

In previous U.S. Opens, she seemed to come into the tournament with a chip on her shoulder, which led to some sanctions in 2009 and 2011. But this time, she came into the match as a new mother, the “Grand Old Lady of Tennis,” and she had the crowd behind her.

There was no need to get into a fracas with the umpire, who’s apparently a straight-up, by-the-book guy. He certainly did not deserve to be publicly humiliated.

For some inexplicable reason, tournament officials left the retractable roof open, meaning the match was played in stifling heat instead of air-conditioning. Why go to the expense of building a stadium with a retractable roof if you’re not going to use it under such conditions?

Still, both women had to play in the same conditions, and, if anything, the far-more-experienced Serena should have been able to handle the heat better than the nervous youngster on the other side of the net.

But Serena first lost it early in the second set when Perez gave her a warning because Patrick Mouratogiou, her coach, was making hand signals from his seat in the stand. There’s a rule against such “coaching” in tennis, which seems rather silly. Still, it’s an infraction.

Serena’s supporters felt that Lopez should have given her a “soft” warning, calling her over to tell her to tell her coach to cut it out. Apparently, that’s the way “coaching is typically handled. Nevertheless, Lopez was within his right to handle it as he did.

A few games later, Ms. Williams, still seething over the warning, lost her serve up 3 points to 1 and hurled her racket to the ground, demolishing it. That’s an automatic violation, because it came after an earlier warning, and it meant the automatic loss of one point.

Now Serena was so hot – literally as well as figuratively – that she confronted Ramos a second time, demanding an apology and calling him a thief. In baseball, she would have been sent to the showers. But in tennis, Ramos hit her with a third violation, which cost her an entire game.

After a long confrontation, play resumed, but the crowd wouldn’t stop booing Ramos. It was under these unhappy circumstances that Ms. Osaka proceeded to win the match. Sadly, however, the match always will be remembered more for Serena’s boorish behavior than for Ms. Osaka’s excellent play.

The trophy presentation was the most awkward ceremony of its kind that anybody had ever seen. Serena tried to regain a modicum of her dignity by being as gracious as she could. But it was too little, too late. The winner tried to smile bravely but she obviously was distraught by what she had just endured.

Once again, Martina Navratilova hit an ace in her New York Times piece.

“There have been many times when I was playing that I wanted to break my racket into a thousand pieces,” Navratilova said. “Then I thought about the kids watching. And I grudgingly held on to my racket.

The match gave tennis several issues to explore. Should the rule against “coaching” be tossed out? Is there a double standard for men and women? How can the sport prevent such nasty displays from marring one of its signature events in the future?

Your serve again, Ms. Navratilova.

“Tennis is a very democratic sport,” Navratilova said. “But it is on individual players to conduct themselves with respect for the sport we love so dearly.”

Yes, yes, and yes.

Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter from Louisville who contributes regular columns to

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