The Women’s Final: A Letter to Serena

Update 3/7/21–I’m looking at this post two and a half years later. Although I still agree with the general substance of what I wrote, the tone is much harsher than I feel now. In retrospect, I wish I’d been a bit more measured in my response. Mary Carillo said it much better: “At her very best — and she is very often at her very best — I respect and admire Serena beyond measure. She is so powerful. She’s an important voice. She’s a ferocious competitor. But at her very worst, as she was on this night, she acts like a bully.” But Serena doesn’t get a do-over of that night, and I suppose I shouldn’t get a do-over either. I’m not editing the post, other than acknowledging some chagrin here.


Well, guys, I’m going out on a limb here. I wrote this draft and then decided it was too controversial to post. But then I saw a longer opinion piece on, making many of the same points, although at greater length and better explained than I was able to do here. Check out the piece if you can, and then let’s discuss in the comment section…

Dear Serena,

Yes, you’re the greatest of all time. That’s been established beyond question, regardless of whether you overtake Margaret Court’s Grand Slam record.

And it’s true the chair umpire erred in not giving you a verbal warning before issuing the final code violation that cost you the game. He didn’t have to give you a warning–you were well over the line–but with so much at stake, he should have. Maybe there was even sexism involved.

But honestly. Enough about being a mom. We know, we know. You’ve told us over and over again. Your bizarre argument to the chair umpire (“I have never cheated! I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her!”) was a painfully transparent play for the crowd’s sympathy, reminiscent of Jimmy Connors’s blatant crowd-baiting in the 1991 U.S. Open quarterfinals (“I’m out here playing my butt off at 39 years old, and you’re doing that?!”)

You’re not the world’s first mom, nor the first working mom, or even the first mom to play professional tennis. Enough with the empowerment catsuits and “Mama knock you out” commercials. It’s time to get over yourself and just play the damn game.

You’ve been playing professional tennis for half your life. You’re well aware that a coaching violation doesn’t mean the player is cheating. It means the coach was sending signals. You know this. You created a circus about it because you were losing and because you knew you could rally the crowd to your side.

Maybe you didn’t see your coach’s signals. But if he did it on Saturday, he surely has done it before in the six years he has been your coach. The fact that he sends you signals cannot be news to you, your histrionics notwithstanding. Yes, other coaches do it. And sometimes they’re caught. It has happened to Nadal. This time it was you. Even multi-Slam champions aren’t exempt from the rules.

In the process of creating your sideshow, you robbed Naomi Osaka of the joy of her first Grand Slam title. And then you got to play the magnanimous loser, swallowing your pride and pleading for the boos to stop. That’s big of you.

Penalty or no penalty, Naomi Osaka was going to beat you. She was already up a break–all she had to do was hold her serve. After the game penalty and your screaming and pointing and crying, with the boos raining down on her, she not only held her serve, but did it with an ace and two service winners–in her very first Grand Slam final and against her idol, the greatest player of all time.

It was quite a show. What a shame you had to ruin it for her.

P.S. If you think it’s tough dealing with a chair umpire you can’t bend to your will, wait until little Alexis gets older. Now might be a good time to start working on some anger management because nothing will push your buttons like a teenager.


Okay, guys–I know you have something to say on this topic! Let me have it! (But keep it clean and respectful, please! I don’t want to have to issue any code violations! 😄)

19 thoughts on “The Women’s Final: A Letter to Serena

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  1. Right on and well said, Deb.
    Also , did anyone taoe this match? Go back to the live part where Chris Evert points out the coach’s signals and then comments that Serena follows his advice by coming in to the net and successfully winning several points. After the match, the commentators tried to defend Serena’s argument that she never saw his signals. Then there was a sort of “oops” moment when that tape shows her looking toward her box.
    In the aftermath I was hoping for an apology from an undeniably great champion, not for one from the umpire.

    1. I feel like I remember the Chris Evert comment you’re talking about, but it’s possible my brain is playing tricks on me. Not that I doubt your word, just my own memory! Did you tape it? That would be funny to see. What I find really interesting is that published that highly critical opinion piece on its site. As far as I know, the site is affiliated with Tennis magazine, whose editor-in-chief is Chris Evert. It’s surprising, though admirable, that they allowed the piece to run. Not admirable because I agree with the points, but admirable because it’s highly controversial and could alienate a large portion of their readership. (However, the majority of the comments on that piece have been positive.)

  2. Great post. Many of us have faced difficult challenges as moms.. I was getting sick of hearing about that over and over. I have a 16 and a 20 year old. I hear what you are saying about teenagers.

    1. Yes, I’m tired of hearing about it too. Do you think it will stop now? I kind of think it will, although her invocation of her motherhood in her argument with the umpire doesn’t seem to have gotten much attention in the press coverage. It was so ludicrous…

  3. I wholeheartedly agree! I thought Serena behaved appallingly, trying to redirect attention away from her terrible behavior with charges of sexism. Regardless of whether men are treated the same or not, she broke the rules THREE times, lost her cool because she was losing, and showed terrible sportsmanship overall. Poor Osaka was robbed of the joy of winning her first grand slam because of Serena’s selfish outbursts.

    1. The sad part is that I think she has been successful in deflecting attention with the sexism charge. I do think that the umpire should have issued a warning, and maybe would have were it a man. So I don’t deny a double standard in levying penalties. But sexism is not the whole story of the spectacle that unfolded. In fact, I think it’s a small part. But nowadays, as soon as the charge of sexism is levied, all further conversation grinds to a halt. If you don’t side with Serena, you risk being similarly accused of sexism. It’s the get-out-of-jail free card. I’m not a fan of this particular development in the feminist movement.

  4. Thank you for this post. While I respect Serena’s tennis accomplishments and her incredible talents, this was a terrible example of sportsmanship. I find it ironic that her first tirade at the umpire during the 2009 US Open – getting docked 2 points which cost her the match – she lost to Kim Clijsters..who was returning to a Grand Slam championship after having a baby.

  5. I think Serena was completely wrong. The rules are the rules. And she has played long enough to know them. So I agree with you wholeheartedly.

    Have you read what Martina Navratilova wrote about it? I really liked her take on it also.

    1. Yes, I did read the Navratilova piece. Very eloquent. I liked what she said about the right question to be asking. The right question isn’t “why can’t I get away with the boorish behavior the men get away with?” It’s “how can I conduct myself in a way that honors the sport and my opponent?’ I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it.

      I also LOVED when she called out her colleagues who claimed that the coaching violation is never called. It’s called quite often. Apparently Cibulkova got called for it earlier in the tournament. No tirade from her that I know of.

  6. Yes Deb, you did it again….you made me think. I HATE it when you do that! I love Serena, BUT you are right-once again.

    1. Oh, I so love being right! 😄 But really, the range of views on what happened is astonishing. I was discussing the Serena incident with someone, me arguing about what I perceive as Serena’s entitlement and deliberate crowd-baiting, my friend making the case about sexism and what Serena has had to face in her life. Her son pointed out that we’re not actually disagreeing. It’s just which aspect of this entire sad incident each person chooses to focus on. I guess what we can all absolutely agree on is that Naomi Osaka conducted herself with amazing maturity and poise, and it’s unfortunate she couldn’t savor her win the way she ought to have been able to.

  7. I love this post — and the comments. I hope Serena will apologize to Osaka, who showed such sportsmanship and fortitude. There’s nothing that will topple your idol faster than watching her behave badly, but how awful to have it impact your amazing achievement. I know there was so much pressure on Serena to break the record. But there’s just no excuse for her outbursts. I’m sure she’s been getting that feedback from many sources. Will she apologize? I hope so.

  8. I wouldn’t expect an apology from her, at least not a straightforward one. Maybe something along the lines of “I’m so sorry that the terrible officiating robbed Naomi of her moment.” She never apologized for threatening to ram the tennis ball down the lineswoman’s throat, so I don’t think she’ll accept any part of the blame now!

  9. I have a slightly different take than others. Yes, Serena let her anger get the best of her and if she were perfect she could have contained it, but anger is part of her competitive spirit, and not just hers, but uber athletes in general. It is was drives them — the fire in their belly.

    I found the chair ump to overplay his hand. We all know that the tennis pros get coached from the stands, and given that it is a standard, why did he need to give her the first warning / penalty? Then regarding the racket being thrown down– I am not a fan of that move but I have seen many, many men (and in this US Open btw) who threw it down, to no penalty. So that felt like adding salt to the wound (and in an unfair way).

    By this time, Ramos had thrown gas on the fire that was already simmering and of course we could have all predicted that Serena would explode. I have not seen game penalties awarded (though were I do a search I could probably find it). To do this in the final meant that he effectively put his hands on the scale. Naomi Osaka was probably going to win (btw I was routing for her, not that it matters) but he clouded her victory. I view the role of umps and referees to ensure a fair game, but it is the athletes performance that dictates the outcome. In this instance, I felt that he did help determine the outcome.

    Bottom line: everyone lost. Serena for not better containing her anger (though that emotion has helped her to drive herself to such heights). Naomi for having a cloud over what should have been a moment of pure joy and victory, and Ramos for not being able to contain his thin skin and understand the emotions of the moment. Lastly, there is clear sexism here because we have all seen many more rants, and broken rackets by the men without a similar penalty imposed. There are no winners (except Naomi) but hopefully some lessons learned, and most important is to be CONSISTENT in how the game is called.

  10. No! There will be NO dissent on my blog! 😄

    No surprise, but I have to disagree with you. Coaching does get called. I’ve seen it happen to Nadal, and without any soft warning. (He springs to mind for me because I watch far more of his matches than any other player.) Cibulkova got a coaching violation in this tournament. The fact that it isn’t called very often may have something to do with coaches making sure they’re not seen. They don’t coach every single point–only when some new strategy is needed. So most of the time that a chair umpire would look over at the coach, there wouldn’t be anything to see. And if the umpire does see the coach doing something, he has to be very sure that it’s an actual coaching signal, and not an innocent hand gesture. So it doesn’t surprise me that coaching isn’t called very often–but it is called. Navratilova says the same, in her NYT piece.

    Regarding the racquet abuse, what I understand is that this isn’t a discretionary call–it’s an automatic code violation. If players are smashing rackets and not being assessed a point, it’s because it’s their first violation. I watched a Dimitrov match recently where he’d already been assessed a couple of code violations. He was losing and his opponent was one game away from the match. Dimitrov asked the judge, quite calmly, if the next code violation was a game penalty. The umpire said yes, and Dimitrov proceeded to smash his racquet and then shake his opponent’s hand. It was kind of a funny moment, but it highlights the fact that players are well aware of the rules.

    I do think the chair umpire should have given Serena a soft warning before that last game-costing code violation. I’m not sure that would have necessarily calmed her down, but it seems like the right thing to do. I said in my post that he should have giver her the soft warning because there was so much at stake. I actually should have said it’s because it was worth an entire game. The fact that it was the finals of a Grand Slam shouldn’t have anything to do with it.

    To be honest, I’m not even convinced that sexism was at play here. I’m not saying sexism doesn’t exist. I just am not convinced that a male player acting the way Serena did wouldn’t get a code penalty. I’m trying to imagine a man pointing up into the chair umpire’s face, enraged and shouting (not saying, but full-on shouting) “You owe me an apology! Say it!” And going on and on, over the course of a couple of games, and finally calling the chair umpire a liar and a thief. Maybe some chair umpires would excuse this, but I’m not at all convinced that all of them would.

    Finally, not that you brought it up, but I think Billie Jean King’s knee-jerk response that when men express themselves, they’re considered “outspoken” is just off the mark. No one excused McEnroe or the rest of the bad boys of tennis as “outspoken.” They were universally criticized for their out-of-control behavior. They often were not always assessed penalties, but it seems to me that there’s just less tolerance for this behavior across the board today.

    Whew! Is anyone else exhausted from the Serena chronicles?! And I still have a post to write…in part about Serena! 😂

  11. There is so much to say about this match and Serena. But, I’ll settle for the issue of coaching violations.

    There is tremendous disagreement about the inconsistency of calling coaching violations, despite some former players and commentators weighing in firmly on one side or the other after the match.

    Here are three articles about the inconsistency of calling coaching violations, written before the latest debacle, which says it is hardly a settled issue.

    So if it’s not settled, then why intervene in a final match, when intervention certainly wasn’t needed?

    Here’s a link to Renee Stubbs’ talking about Serena’s match, faulting the umpire for calling the first violation when another approach could have avoided all the subsequent events: (go down a bit on her feed to find her Sunrise interview)

    1. Wait…we’re doing research now? I thought we were just winging it! Damn, I’m going to have to step up my game!

      I can understand people’s frustration with the fact that coaching isn’t always called. It should be, but I think most coaches (obviously not Henin’s, according to your article) do it surreptitiously. The chair umpire has to A) see it, and B) be able to recognize it as a clear coaching signal and not, say, scratching one’s nose. And some chair umpires are stricter than others. It’s like getting a speeding ticket. Usually you get away with speeding. But not always. When you get caught, no amount of “but everyone else speeds and they didn’t get a ticket” is going to get you out of it. Serena should have just let it go, the way Nadal does. (Actually, she did let mostly let it go, until after she smashed her racquet and got the point penalty, That’s when she decided to really flip out about the earlier coaching violation.)

      Ramos is apparently a stickler. He’s known for that and is a highly respected official. Just because some other chair umpires aren’t doing a good job doesn’t mean Ramos should lower his own standards. The goal should be to make the other umpires better.

      And I don’t think the fact it’s a final should have any bearing on whether a penalty is called. Every player in every match is trying to win, and I think an official needs to be blind to whether it’s a first-round match or a final, or the 127th ranked player in the world or the world number 1.

      What a tumultuous tournament! Clearly there will never be agreement on this issue!

Let me know what you think!

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