Hot Take: Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, that chair umpire, and the US Open Final

Amira, Lindsay, Shireen, Brenda, and Jessica discuss the second set of the 2018 US Open final, which went sideways really fast. This was about racism, about sexism, about the subjectiveness of tennis rules, about the history of Serena’s experiences with bad calls at the US Open, and so much more.

Congratulations to the Naomi Osaka on her US Open title and thank you to Serena for all she does.


Amira: Hi. It’s Amira Rose Davis, and I am here with the full crew of Burn It all Down for exclusive Hot Take. Welcome. So if you were watching the U.S. Open this weekend, and you tuned in to watch Naomi Osaka play her shero, Serena Williams, you were probably expecting to be riveted by a match the second year in a row we see two black women in the final.

There were so many story lines going into this. What you might not have expected and what we were treated to, was besides Naomi playing out of her mind, we were treated to Serena and the umpire Carlos Ramos getting into a series of exchanges resulting first in a warning and a discussion about coaching, and a point penalty and eventually a game penalty called at a crucial moment in the match that really then overshadowed the rest of the event.

At the end of the event, you might have seen pictures of Naomi in tears, Serena in tears, there’s a lot going on here, and because there’s so much going on and a lot to unpack, and all of us have really strong feelings, we got the whole crew together to bring a Hot Take to you. So, I’m literally opening it up, what, what, what, what, what.

Jessica: Can I start with the fact that Naomi Osaka fucking won that match.

Amira: Yes.

Jessica: I mean, there was a lot of stuff that happened in the second set that could have thrown both players off of their game, and I just like, I just want to start from the fact that, when everything really the game penalty I guess, it was 4-3 in the second set, Naomi was up a set and she was up a break at that point.

Then they get the game penalty, there’s a lot of time spent between Serena and the chair and then they brought out the ref. She actually called for the referee so she could make her point, it was an incredibly emotional Serena, crying on court, saying this is not fair.

I mean, my heart’s breaking just even thinking about it, and then Naomi is up 5-3, Serena serves to 5-4, and then 20 year old Naomi Osaka stands on the other side of the court and she serves the hell out of the match and wins that, and wins the title of the U.S. Open.

And I just wanted to start there, because I feel like that’s really going to get lost in a lot of the coverage of this, and so I’m just starting there and then let’s get into it.

Shireen: I have a precursor sort of thing, I have problems with anyone named Ramos apparently, so I’m just going to leave that there.

Brenda: It’s always got to be soccer thrown in, even when it’s tennis.

Shireen: Even when it’s tennis.

Brenda: There’s got to be a way Shireen and I can work soccer in.

Shireen: Work, work soccer.

Brenda: Can I just say really quickly how wonderful for me it was to see such a, and we talked today on Episode 71, which will be out about Naomi Osaka and what a composed and amazing job she did both during the match and after, and how happy I was that it wasn’t Maria Sharapova, with Serena or someone I would have thrown my whole kind of heart in a different direction about it.

I just think that picture of Serena where she tells the fans to stop booing and hugs Osaka is the picture of the year for sports for me.

Jessica: So, can we start with the coaching violation?

Amira: I was about to say, yeah.

Jessica: Because I think this is really, Patrick Mouratoglou.

Lindsay: Ugh, sorry.

Jessica: Who was Serena’s coach, he admitted, so he admitted on camera to ESPN, I mean he’s a commentator for them, after it all ended, that he was coaching but that everybody coaches, I mean he moved his hands.

Amira: Right.

Jessica: He did this little thumbs up thing, he moved his hands, he was sitting in the second row, I don’t, you know maybe Serena saw it, I don’t know, who knows? Probably not, but like, the idea of Ramos called a coaching violation for that, which of course is against Mouratoglou, but taken out on Serena, because she’s the one on court, and I mean, that’s sort of the place, right?

Like, I, it’s so rare to see coaching violations in my, but I don’t know, I wanted to hear sort of, Lindsay, like how normal is that especially in big matches like this, especially for something, that little hand gesture that he did.

Lindsay: I mean, they happen. They don’t never happen, but there is an arbitrary nature to is, I’ve seen. You know, it’s really tough to talk about any of this in absolutes. Which is, I think-

Jessica: Right, right.

Lindsay: One of the most difficult things, right? You can’t look at it in a vacuum but you also, there are direct comparisons for everything, do you know what I mean? You can find comparisons where people have gotten coaching violations in big matches and where they haven’t.

I do, I think it’s silly, I think it’s really ridiculous, I also think Patrick should have taken more of the blame there, and if he wanted to point out the coaching thing, she should have just gotten a soft warning, so not like an official warning.

Jessica: Right, right.

Lindsay: A soft warning. But I also don’t think she handled that super well, she took it incredibly personally, which I understand, because Serena takes her reputation incredibly seriously, Serena has had such bad experiences on the U.S. Open stage with umpires and with lines judges, she often feels like she’s being attacked when she’s out there.

And especially when her back is against the wall, when she is down a set and playing a very good opponent, as she was, she gets, she feels very vulnerable. I’m not saying that’s wrong, I do though, she did, she reacted a little like, you know, she overreacted a little bit to this.

She took it incredibly personally and couldn’t let it go, she took it as an accusation to her character when it was a warning for Patrick, and unfortunately things spiraled from there, like I said I completely understand why she felt the way she did, I think and especially coming back from pregnancy, putting all this pressure on yourself to be the best, you’re down, you’re the favorite.

I mean, there’s just, being Serena carries so much weight that I just can’t imagine going through the world with that much pressure on your shoulders, so I don’t want anyone to think that I’m not saying that. But, she should have been able to in that moment, kind of take a deep breath and let that go, but she could not and then things spiraled from there and then Carlos Ramos really went off the deep end.

Amira: I don’t think that she overreacted, because I think that she had an emotional reaction and I think there’s a way in which that, she doesn’t get to have that in the same way. And it’s not just her, one of the things that was really telling to me and you might have seen this clip, is Venus having a very similar exchange to Ramos about a year ago.

And Venus’ reaction, and Venus as somebody who’s a little more introverted, having a reaction in which she’s saying, that’s not me, that’s not my character, I don’t cheat.

And Venus having the, literally having the same reaction, really for me says that there’s something in this fear of perception of cheating and insinuation and I thought when Serena first handled it and when she walked over and she essentially was like, that’s not a warning, that’s not a code, I don’t have code, I don’t take on court coaching.

Like I know that you don’t know that but I’m letting you know that he wasn’t giving me a code, if my boss is giving me thumbs up, they’re just encouraging me but that’s not coaching. I never cheat to win, I wouldn’t do that. And I think that was her initial response and I definitely agree Lind’s, like the frustration of the match plus all these things leads to a more emotional response.

Lindsay: Yeah.

Amira: But I think that’s valid, but I don’t think that emotion, I think that emotion is reacted to differently.

Lindsay: Yeah, I mean I don’t think the game penalty was, I’m saying more, it was overreaction as in, I wanted to see her let it go so she could get fully back in the match, do you know what I mean?

Amira: Right.

Lindsay: Like mentally as a champion I wanted to be able to see her brush that off the way she brushes off so many other things, and that is much easier for me to say from the sidelines, but I could feel it taking over the match and I wanted for someone who just, who wanted to see this go three sets and wanted to see this continue.

Amira: Right.

Lindsay: I just kind of wanted her to take a deep breath and I also, the place this gets tough is that we have seen, I’ve definitely seen Nadal get coaching before, I’ve seen him also not at a lot of times, and that’s the tough thing about tennis and that’s where these umpires really have to figure out what they’re going to do.

Carlos Ramos is kind of known as being one of the only umpires who will give these warnings to star players, because a lot of times star players on both, of both tours don’t get, like get away with a lot more. And so I think that I did see someone say a lot of times players aren’t used to it and then it’s bad, it was just like, it was a bad, it was just so, all of it was so unfortunate and it was just, it was just so, so sad.

And I mean, like I said, Serena’s just been through so much and you do see, you hear all, black women and other women of color who feel this, especially black women.

And so you think this is something like black women’s emotions are policed in ways that they’re not for white women, they’re certainly not for men, and so I think that you can’t pretend that this isn’t happening in that vacuum and that Serena’s not feeling that, the weight of all of that on the court as well.

Jessica: Yeah, and I want to just mention two things. A lot of people are going to tell us a lot about 2009 U.S. Open where Serena had trouble in the semi-final with calls and then threatened a line judge to kind of stuff a tennis ball down her throat, something like that, and people really like to bring that up with Serena.

But the U.S. Open 2004, the quarter finals against Capriati, she had horrible calls in the third set, Serena did, she ended up losing the match, they actually apologized to her after the fact. And the reason that we have video challenge in tennis now is, everyone points back directly to that match that she lost in 2004 as the reason that they seriously went ahead and implemented this.

So, Serena has been through it with this fucking sport, right? And she said something, I can’t remember exactly but just as I was watching it yesterday, she said something in the middle of all of it about like how this keep happening to me here.

Amira: Right, right.

Jessica: So, she was thinking about all those things, and then the other thing, the big game penalty when it was 4-3 and then put Osaka up 5-3, end of the fucking match. Ramos interesting himself into the match like that at such a critical moment I do think there was a lot of ego involved in that decision, Sally Jenkins has a column I can’t believe she wrote it, under ten lines.

Amira: Right.

Jessica: The way she did. And basically the worst thing that Serena did was call him a liar and a thief, and there is a great thread that’s going around of like all the things that tennis players yell at chair umpires all the time that don’t result in such harsh penalties, especially at the moment when it did.

It does matter that it was the U.S. Open final, it does matter that it was 4-3 and the match Osaka had just broken. Making that decision then, all of this stuff is so subjective and I just, that was such a shitty, shitty move at that moment in time for the chair to make.

Amira: And the thing that, one of the things you raised about that was Serena’s kind of continued disbelief, I can’t believe I keep being treated like that, it’s hard to think of another person who’s done as much for their sport, right?

Jessica: Right.

Amira: Still not getting, not the benefit of the doubt, but like, it’s weird, right, to me. I think about Tom Brady’s rapport with refs. I think about what it would look like with LeBron in the NBA, right?

There’s awareness around who are the people who have done so much for this sport, who is the ambassador for this sport? And it just seems like she’s still fighting and Venus, are still fighting the battles that they were fighting 20 years ago.

Shireen: I just wanted to say too that on that note, Jess you had mentioned that people bring up the 2009 U.S. Open and when we say people a lot of those complicit in this are media. And how they take, and some of the takes on this have been so bad. Like so incredibly bad, and I could always preface this by saying there’s such an obvious lack of black sports columnists or people of color generally in sports media.

I mean, I’ve been catching up on some of the takes, a lot of the criticisms, and I won’t use the word criticisms, a lot of the reflections were that Serena’s been treated so unfairly, even Richard Deitsch this morning, or last night, tweeted that he had covered 17 U.S. Opens, and nobody with that level of resume of Serena, if it was a man, would have gotten the call that she did. So clearly, there’s clearly something, a misstep happening here.

But I mean Nancy Armour wrote a piece this morning, and I can’t, this was Sunday morning, and I can’t whiff it because there’s a mention, and this is where white feminism fails us yet again, again. Where you can’t talk about Serena and not talk about the racism she faced, what she’s had to go through is exponentially worse than other female players have.

And I just, I don’t know how this cannot be included into the analysis. Somebody explain this, how there’s such a gaping hole in this. I don’t want to read white peoples bad takes on Serena’s behavior. I can’t even with that. And what she was expected to do better.

Like it was just, I thought where Serena needed to be supportive and encouraging with Osaka, she was in the end. And that’s what she did, and she stepped up to a role and that’s why she’s revered and why Osaka loves her so much. But don’t tell me that her behavior was unacceptable and even an oppressor.

When someone asked her how will you explain your anger to your daughter? Someone had the gall to ask Serena this. How will you explain your anger to your daughter, like, I’m sorry. Serena’s daughter is also a black woman, she’ll understand the anger, that’s absolutely justifiable. And she’ll understand it, and she’ll get it. Like I just, I mean it’s like someone telling my daughter, why does your mother get so ragey? I mean that’s a ridiculous question.

Jessica: Yeah, yeah of course, right? And I think it was very interesting, Serena kept bringing up on court that there was gender disparity in the reaction to her. And then she brought it up very forcefully at the end of her press conference afterwards, that she’s doing this now, so that the women that come behind her don’t have to deal with this, which is really, it’s a good, powerful moment that you should watch, but also thinking about Osaka, who is 20, a black woman on that court.

Thinking about Sloane Stephens who won last year. And especially with Osaka because she’s told us repeatedly that Serena is her hero, and that’s why she’s playing tennis. And then to think that Serena’s still doing this work and feels like she’s doing this work at this point in time.

And you know, Serena also brought up what happened to Alizé Cornet, and the umpire giving her, or her being fined for her shirt on court that you guys talked about when I was gone, that there are, that this is, there’s just a spectrum of issues here that are all related to each other that tennis really needs to work on.

Lindsay: Yeah, I think that it’s, I just, I keep thinking back to her 2011 U.S. Open too, where she got the hindrance call, I don’t know if you guys remember that. And one of the things she said when all of that was going down, is the umpire was Eva Asderaki, I’m not saying that right. And she said something to Ava about how you’re doing this to me again?

So what happened is she was going to hit a forehand but she screamed really loudly as she was doing it and she got a hindrance call because it, something about it, when you are making distracting noises. I mean it was a very loud scream but it was also, once again, a call of discretion.

And I remember her while she was kind of going back and forth with the umpire over this, she said something along the lines of, you’re doing this to me again, or it’s always you. And I don’t have this for sure, like I don’t know, I’m not in her head, but what somebody brought up was that the umpire in that famous 2004 match that Jess was talking about, was Mariana Alves, and she and Ava look very similar.

And wondering if she felt that it was the same person. And I think it goes to this, this feeling that Serena has which is justified in so many ways, and that we see boil over in these moments that she is being, that this stage has just been such a vulnerable one for her and that she has been wronged on this stage before, and she has also not, in 2009, she has acted incorrectly and has told people that.

She apologized for the threats she gave to the umpire in that match, and we certainly haven’t seen anything like that again, this was nothing like that.

Jessica: Yeah.

Lindsay:  And I think that it’s really, I just feel for her because I feel her, victim is not the right word and it’s not one I ever want to use to Serena or put on Serena, but she feels more vulnerable out there on that U.S. Open center court.

Jessica: Yeah.

Lindsay: Because of these moments in her career. And so I think it’s so much harder, it is that much more emotional, and it’s so tough. In 2011 that was, I believe when she was coming back from her injury from the, from when she, the pulmonary embolism and now she’s a year back.

And there’s just so much pressure on her for just existing and I think it’s pretty incredible that she was able to very clearly kind of see the big picture here even in the middle of it, and I think it just, it speaks to the fact that she’s at a point in her career where she is embracing, I mean this activism part of her is such a central part of who she is now, that we see that even in her toughest moments.

And she really is fighting for everyone but especially for the Naomi Osaka’s of this world. And the way, her response in the trophy ceremony was remarkable and I love to see it. And that’s, I’m also not surprised by it.

Jessica: Yeah.

Lindsay: Like that’s, she’s always bigger when she needs to be and just to clarify, my thing about her, the emotions, was just, I wanted her to get back to the sport, not that I faulted her in any way for feeling the way she did about the code, the coaching violation.

But I just, there was by the letter of the law, there was a way that he wasn’t making that up and clearly she and Patrick are going to have some touch conversations and I’m just so over Patrick.

Amira: Yeah, if you were on Twitter, watching this match, one of the things that I saw is many, many, many black women on my feed recognizing that feeling of frustration, and expression of, what historian Brittany Cooper says, that eloquent rage.

And being at a workplace, and even if after you get your vent out you feel damn, that was a moment of slippage. Because I just gave fuel to all my detractors. I just embodied that stereotype of being aggressive black woman, an angry black woman, I’ve just done that.

And I’ve been in those situations where the outburst came, and it came, and it came fast and it came strong and it came heavy and it came out. And immediately I wanted to take it back but it felt good, to like, for that moment be allowed a full range of humanity and emotion.

And then the immediate moment after knowing that I had just invited, opened the door, for all of the misogyny, and all of the kind of response that was going to come. And I think some of what we saw with Serena in her attempt to kind of stay fast to what the feelings were, but also find a muted way to continue to move on, for me, I felt like was that moment, of damn. Like this is the line I crossed because I know that my box is smaller of acceptable action.

And I know I just stepped outside of that. But that initial moment, that frustration reminds me, if you’ve seen Ava DuVernay’s documentary, Venus First, there’s a moment, a clip from Venus, at, I think she’s like 16 when beads fly out of her hair and it gets called interference. And she’s so frustrated at the point of tears.

And I think about those beads a lot, and I think about this moment, and I think about all the black women on my timeline responding so viscerally to this moment, of not only the policing that is done to our bodies, but the way you have to contain yourself.

And not only that, but that paired with Naomi Osaka, who’s blackness is constantly erased in these narratives of her. She becomes Japanese and kind of Japanese American, that she has dual citizenship. But she’s Haitian.

And to have this huge moment for her also be kind of overshadowed by this, when they hugged at the line and kind of cried into each other, it felt like, that embrace held centuries of struggle. And for me that was what was so exhausting about this, is because you know the Hot Takes are coming and you know the analysis and you know that there’s going to be a lot here.

And it feels to me like a very hard moment to navigate because, like we talked about the coaching call, we talk about the racket, we talk about gender disparity, and we talk about all of this, and the reality is, that all of those things are happening at the same time as they are still navigating the space that they have literally been in for two decades.

And I think that to me was wild. And I wanted better for Osaka, I wanted Naomi to smile and fall at the net, and cheer and I wanted her, like I wanted that. And she, after the match was like, it was so hard to stay composed because as a fan I felt so much for what she was going through, and her tears, like that was the weight of it for me. And so I think we started with Naomi, and we really should wrap up because I want her to have some parts of this moment back. So Lindsay?

Lindsay: Yeah, I know you all come here to Burn It All Down for the stats, so, you know. I’m just going to rattle off a few. On the big, the biggest match of her career, playing her idol, the person who get her into tennis, she had six aces and only one double fault, that’s compared to three aces and six double faults for Serena. She out served Serena Williams, and on break points she saved, she won four out the five break points that she had, which is remarkable.

Shireen: Incredible.

Lindsay: I mean that’s like unheard of. It’s just unheard of. Serena was one for six. So look, this is a match that should have been all about Osaka’s wonderful play, and Serena should have gotten the fair chance to come back at the end. And these two men, especially Ramos, should not have been the story, and yet they were. Once again, Serena has made back to back grand slam finals, just over a year after giving birth and almost dying while doing so.

So we have two incredible women, and we had to, in many ways it was a joy to watch and in many ways as we all feel, it is unfortunate how it ended because of what Ramos decided to do in that moment. And so I think we’ll leave it there with a congratulations to grand slam champion, Naomi Osaka and a thank you to Serena Williams for everything that she does.

Shelby Weldon