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U.S. Open

CARLOS RAMOS, SERENA, AND THE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS

Matt Zemek

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Some people think Carlos Ramos was exactly right to do what he did in the U.S. Open women’s singles final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka.

Some people think he was horribly, severely wrong.

Some people think he enforced the rules but should have shown more lenience and/or better discretionary judgment.

Some people think he enforced the rules but that women get hit with rules applications more — or more severely — than men do.

Oh, boy. This stuff is complicated.

Of the above opinions by various human beings — some of them die-hard tennis fans, some of them casual tennis watchers who might tune into a handful of matches per year, this being one of them — the only one I strongly disagree with is the idea that Ramos was horribly and severely wrong.

I do think Ramos should have refrained from handing down a game penalty. However, can I really blame him or view him negatively for doing what he did? No — not in this poorly-governed sport, not under the current structure of rules and policies.

Did I say this was complicated?

Let’s try to have a measured conversation about the various tensions and conflicts in play during the Ramos incident with Serena, and between sports officials and athletes on a more general level.

First off: I have been a sports official, but not a tennis official. I officiated basketball at the high school level, football and softball in recreational leagues or in college intramural leagues. Officials, referees, umpires — the people who make calls and decisions in sporting competitions — always straddle the fence between the rule book and prudential judgment. The rules are there to be applied and not ignored, but prudential judgment calls sports officials to use discretion and wisdom in resolving various kinds of situations. The rule book needs to be respected, but there is almost always a point at which an official has to juggle competing tensions.

This doesn’t make Ramos inherently right or wrong. Serena Williams is much more “inherently” wrong than Ramos. She clearly did abuse a racquet. She clearly did use confrontational language which SOME people would reasonably regard as abusive, if only because it was personal and targeted at Ramos himself. Can any of us blame Ramos for giving a game penalty? Honestly put yourself in his position. If YOU were told you were a thief, how would you react?

I can speak from experience when I say that I have been in Ramos’s position. Officiating high school basketball subjected me to withering, angry speech from coaches who are right on the side of the court and could pour a verbal tidal wave into my ears. I was a captive audience, much as Ramos is a captive audience in the chair when Serena or any player berates him.

This is where officiating gets very complicated, and this is where the center of the discussion emerges in relationship to Saturday’s unfortunate events in a major-tournament championship match.

Sports are highly emotional realms of human activity. You need to be emotional to win as an athlete — I am not speaking of being visibly expressive, but being passionate and intense in going about one’s activities. Athletes can’t be emotionally flat and succeed at what they do. They need to have energy, they need to have fire in the belly, they need to be engaged in the moment at hand. If they get what they think is a bad call, they will yell at an umpire if they can.

Officials are paid to determine whether balls are in or out, or whether a pitch in baseball is a ball or a strike, or whether a foul is committed in a basketball game, but above those calls about the substance of the sport itself, officials are also paid to handle the emotions of the athletes in the playing arena.

Handling emotions does not mean that athletes get to say whatever they want. Obviously, an athlete can cross the line — some have done so in the past, and others will in the future — but it is up to each referee to determine when that happens, using judgment.

In basketball, the unwritten but culturally established principle is that a player or coach can be given a technical foul — which means one or two free throw shots for the opposing team plus possession of the ball — but that giving a player or coach TWO technical fouls, which means ejection from the game, has to be based on a severe overstepping of boundaries. In other words, if I gave a player or coach a technical foul and that player or coach continued to yell fiercely at me, I would need to absorb some of that verbal punishment unless or until that player or coach really flew off the handle. Referees in basketball, if they give technical fouls, need to allow opposing players or coaches to vent a little bit. The player or coach needs to know when to let the matter rest, but that player or coach knows s/he is entitled to express feelings and isn’t under a total straitjacket.

It is a balance.

In baseball, about 250 to 300 pitches are thrown in a normal game. Calling a pitch a ball or a strike is the most regular thing a baseball umpire does in any baseball game. For this reason, players or coaches who argue balls and strikes for more than four or five seconds get thrown out of games. This was not always the case, but it is now at the professional level. Players are allowed to ask questions about why a pitch was or wasn’t called a strike, but they can’t engage in fierce, extended conversations. That is the culture within the sport. It shapes how players and coaches interact with umpires.

Tennis is NOT different from those team sports in the sense that the sport also involves emotion and requires discretion from the main umpire. However, what IS different about tennis is that the umpire is ALWAYS sitting ABOVE the player, from the chair. As we saw with Mohamed Lahyani and Nick Kyrgios, the fact that Lahyani stepped down from the chair to talk to Kyrgios at eye level — or close to it — affected the optics of that situation, making it appear that Lahyani was trying to coach or encourage Kyrgios rather than check on him. Yes, there was loud music coming over the speakers, which created the possibility that Lahyani stepped down to make sure Kyrgios heard him, but that seems like a matter Lahyani could have communicated either before or after the loud music played. The Lahyani-Kyrgios incident, which caused quite a ruckus in its own right on #TennisTwitter, marked an instance in which an official clearly did NOT do things strictly by the book… but when erring on the side of empathy. Stepping down from the chair entered into the empathetic nature of Mo’s display.

Ramos, in direct contrast to Lahyani, stayed in his chair and applied the strict rulebook interpretation of code violations and their attached penalties.

I personally did not have much of a problem with what either Lahyani or Ramos did, but again, this is where matters become VERY complicated and demand VERY particular explanations. I don’t have a PROBLEM with what those two chair umpires did, but that doesn’t mean I fully agree with what they did. When I say I have a PROBLEM with someone, I am especially upset at what they said or did. When I have a PROBLEM with someone, I think they SEVERELY overstepped or did something HIGHLY inappropriate.

Making a bad call or decision is something I disagree with, but it has to be noticeably worse in order for me to view it as unacceptable. Umpires, like players (and also coaches, such as Patrick Mouratoglou on Saturday), make mistakes. For me to not merely disagree with Ramos, but view his actions as fundamentally unacceptable and therefore deserving of severe punishment or sanction, I have to think he crossed a line in an appalling way.

Did he come anywhere close to that? No. Not remotely close.

If Ramos is guilty of anything, it is in showing very little to no leniency — offering no leeway — to Serena. This is not new, though: Ramos has been a hard-ass to Novak Djokovic in the past, including for a racquet bounce on the playing surface at Wimbledon this past July. The narrow rulings Ramos has handed down are not empirically wrong in relationship to the rule book, but the problem emerges when one realizes that very few other umpires enforce the rule book with the same (strict) consistency. Ramos has enforced the time violation more than many umpires. He cited Djokovic for verbal abuse at a recent French Open (I forget which one). It is as though Ramos has his own pattern of enforcement.

Let me go back to baseball: When an umpire calls balls and strikes, every umpire has a different strike zone, a different interpretation of what is or isn’t a strike on a close pitch thrown to the edges of the zone. Some baseball umpires have large strike zones and others have small ones. What is unique about baseball and the strike zone, though, is that the umpire’s view of the zone is a VISUAL thing. If a ball is thrown HERE, the umpire calls it a strike. The pitch might in fact be a ball, but if the umpire consistently calls it a strike, the hitter has to hit the ball in the future. He can’t take more strikes in the same spot. Otherwise, he will strike out and lose his chance at bat.

With Ramos and with tennis rules in general, these aspects of the rule book are not visual; they are BEHAVIORAL, akin to the technical foul in basketball. But in basketball, there is allowance for only one technical foul. The second technical foul means an ejection, throwing that person out of the competition. Tennis has various — and escalating — settings: The warning, the point penalty, the game penalty, and then defaulting the player, which would end the match.

From a baseball perspective, there is no “strike zone” for Serena to accept, since behavior is non-visual but more verbal and emotional. From a basketball perspective, the point penalty after the initial warning is akin to the first technical foul. A game penalty is a severe penalty akin to a second technical foul, especially at *4-3 in the second set of a major final. Giving Osaka 5-3 at that point represented an enormous penalty. Having been a referee myself, I would have allowed Serena to unleash at me, realizing the stakes. I don’t BLAME Ramos, however, for enforcing a rule he was entitled to enforce.

I blame tennis for being very inconsistent on these and related matters which are different from calling balls and strikes in baseball. What it means to coach someone; what it means to verbally abuse; what it means to display inappropriate conduct in a highly emotional sport, all require at least SOME allowance for human beings to vent their emotions. Ramos was honest in enforcing what HE thought was a crossing of the line by Serena. I can’t fault him in a vacuum for doing that. However, when someone such as Ramos and someone such as Lahyani sit at opposite ends of the spectrum as chair umpires, and when people criticize Ramos for being TOO STRICT and Lahyani for being TOO LENIENT, we have a problem, don’t we?

This — what we saw on Saturday — was not a Carlos Ramos problem. It is a problem, but it is a TENNIS problem, because athletes need to expect and trust that they will be handled consistently by umpires. When some are lenient and others are strict, and there is a lot of variance among chair umpires, players lose that expectation of consistency. Tennis needs to refine policies and rules so that there are fewer gray areas. Where those lines are drawn should be for officials, tour executives, and most importantly, the players to figure out. They do need to be drawn, however.

Maybe verbal abuse must be confined to profanity. That is one suggestion. Maybe coaching rules should be rewritten, or maybe coaches should not be allowed to sit in visible areas of the stadium anymore. The main point is that adjustments need to be made, chiefly in the attempt to create CONSISTENCY all players can trust with regularity in similar situations.

Carlos Ramos is not the villain here, though I do think he should not have given a game penalty. I disagree with that specific action from him on Saturday, but I don’t blame or fault him for doing what he did.

See the complexities here? This stuff is complicated. It is on TENNIS, not Mr. Ramos, to resolve these situations and provide a rule and policy structure players can more readily trust.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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