3-1 up in the second set, I cringed.
Serena Williams was so tight in the U.S. Open women’s final on Saturday afternoon. She had just blown a service game that could have potentially given her a 4-1 lead in the second set against Naomi Osaka. That lead, if gained, could have made a match that once seemed never in doubt — at the end of the first set — turn into an evolving story filled with endless possibilities. That lead didn’t become a reality because her trusted first serve had not been compliant in the face of the challenges Naomi Osaka was bringing.
Osaka had been outserving and outmaneuvering Williams on that final Saturday. The 20-year-old had a set lead to her name to prove it wasn’t a mere aberration. So naturally after losing that 3-1 game in set two, Serena proceeded to take out her frustrations on her racquet and received her second code violation. Code violations are like demerits for tennis players who are in violation of the rule book. They can range from verbal warnings to more serious code violations which are often accompanied by various levels of fines. Code violations are always handed out at the discretion of the chair umpire. Fines, on the other hand, are determined by the actual tournament.
I had forgotten how much tennis means to Serena Williams.
More precisely, I had forgotten how much the ideal of being a champion on her home soil means to her. How the ideal of being celebrated in the house that Arthur and Althea helped build can reduce her back to the emotions of the child who just had a racquet, a dream, and some hope 20-odd years ago. The U.S. Open is where Serena has had the opportunity to surpass legends of this sport such as Steffi Graf, Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, and Martina Navratilova. The largest arena in tennis is also where she has experienced some of her most bitter disappointments and a lack of empathy regarding such “failures.”
This was not the first time Serena Williams has expressed emotion on a tennis court or felt she has been cheated in her career.
Williams has been featured in a few of the most questionable matches of the 21st century that featured gamesmanship. The challenge system and HawkEye review mechanism that are now regularly used to review line calls by the umpires were ushered into use in response to controversy during her 2004 quarterfinal match at the U.S. Open against Jennifer Capriati. None of this is stated to excuse Williams’ behavior, but as a viewer I understood that her reaction to the penalties did not exist within a vacuum. Tennis is the prism through which Serena is defined, and once again the spotlight’s glare was the largest at home.
From the moment Serena was docked for breaking her racquet, one could see the match unravel from a tense U.S. Open final to a reality show called Survivor: New York. Williams clearly couldn’t let go of the coaching violation and took it as an insult to her character. Suddenly, I felt anxious. I knew this wouldn’t end well and honestly was worried about how Serena Williams would be perceived. When I say that, I don’t just mean how Serena will be viewed next week by casual fans or how the media will cover the match the next day. I mean I was worried about her legacy and her career.
As someone who has watched her career grow over the years, the stakes feel that high for any misgiving. Even something as ubiquitous as arguing with an umpire. Williams to this day still has her past incidents at the U.S. Open held against her, especially her most egregious: the 2009 foot fault incident in the semifinals against Kim Clijsters. Many fail to follow their recounting of that and other moments with the fact that Williams is still the highest-fined player in tennis history, or the accompanying fact that she was on probation for months. When Serena screws up in a major way at the majors, there is often a warranted consequence. When Serena fails, it is never simply a bad day.
Ultimately, it was tough to see Serena being penalized for basically defending herself. It was also tough to see the inconsistency in umpiring once again. One umpire’s overlooked offense can be another umpire’s game penalty. And both would be working by the rules.
“I think, yeah, that’s hard for me. You know, I think it’s just instantly, just like, Oh, gosh, I don’t want to go back to 2004. Forget 2009, you know. It started way back then. So it’s always something. But that’s also kind of, like, this game mentally that you have to play with. You know, sometimes it might seem like things always happen, but I don’t know the word I’m looking for. You just kind of have to, like, try to realize that it’s coincidence. Maybe it’s coincidence, so…”
Those are Serena’s words. How others feel about those words is something Serena can’t control. Serena can only speak from an awareness of the past which was brought to the present day at the USTA National Tennis Center.