Standards Too High for Serena

As a tennis player, I grew up watching the Williams sisters on television. They were — and still are — my heroes. I would sit criss-cross-applesauce on the family room floor, eyes glazed over, head bobbing back and forth to follow the ball, barely understanding what was happening on the screen. Back in those days, Venus and Serena often played one another in the finals of tournaments. I would root for Venus, since she was the big sister, and my little sister would cheer on Serena.

While Venus has fallen out of the spotlight in recent years, Serena continues to dominate the sports page. Yet as I age, I’ve seen her reputation dragged through the mud time and time again. Whether it be positive or negative, people have something to say every time Serena appears on court.

As I look up what happened in the U.S. Open finals this year, I am bombarded with words such as “rant,” “outburst,” and “meltdown.” The Telegraph alone featured all three of these words in one article. Serena Williams is being attacked by the media for her reaction to a game penalty. After receiving a penalty for supposedly receiving coaching during the match, Williams spoke out in defense of herself and her integrity. Rightfully offended at being accused of cheating, she yelled out, “I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose.” She went on to say that she stands for what is right for her daughter’s sake and that she felt she was owed an apology. Upon calling the chair umpire a thief, her comments — which contained neither threats of violence nor any profanity — were ruled verbal abuse.

Former world number-one ranked tennis star Billie Jean King spoke out in support of Williams on Twitter, writing, “When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ and there are no repercussions.” Both Serena and King are calling out the double standard which continues to restrict women not only in tennis, but in all sports.

I have to believe that this simply would not have happened to a male player.

Men are praised for the traits — in their case, “competitive spirits” — that women are so often criticized for — in our case, “unchecked emotion.” I cannot count the number of times I have seen male players, both in tournaments I have played in and in professional matches on television, act much worse than Williams did this past match. A high school boy whose match I was managing once defaced the bathroom of a rival school and was given no more than a slap on the wrist. He wasn’t even suspended from the next match.

As mentioned in a recent article by The Quint, Roger Federer, a player often praised for his quiet, respectful presence on the court, has sworn at chair umpires in the past and faced no penalties. Andy Murray once kicked a ball at an umpire’s head without any repercussions, and ABC News called this “show[ing] off his football skills.”

This debacle may have even been avoided had it involved a female player other than Williams. The fact of the matter is that people have been looking to tear Williams down her entire career. She is held to an unattainable standard on and off the court. I have heard many people say that Williams should have handled herself better in the situation. To this I respond: Yes, she could have acted in a more appropriate manner.

But was her anger, her frustration, her resentment at the implication that she would cheat not justified? I suppose the answer to that question is one that we must all decide for ourselves, but I believe that everything Williams did was within reason. Perhaps she could have stopped herself from saying what she did. However, I believe it is the incredibly unrealistic standard that she is held to, rather than her actions themselves, which got her in trouble with the refs and the media.

There is, of course, much more to unpack from this event. The conversation of double standards and unfair scrutiny in tennis has been a long time coming, and I hope it does not end here. Yet what I want to make sure is not lost in all of this is that Naomi Osaka played an amazing match and accomplished something groundbreaking. She is the first Japanese tennis player to win a Grand Slam singles tournament. Apologetically fighting back tears and covering her face is no way for a champion to feel she must act. To let what happened take her victory away from her would be an absolute shame, and I ask that, as Williams graciously begged in her finalist award acceptance speech, we “not boo anymore” and “try to make this the best moment we can.” The worst thing we can do at this time is pit two women, each of whom has revolutionized the game, against one another. Neither Williams nor Osaka is the one to blame.