On Sept. 8, the U.S. Open women’s singles final took place — the last of the four grand slams of tennis that occur every year. Within the tournament, hundreds compete against top-ranked competition on the world’s biggest stage, New York City. This year, however, the women’s finals was overshadowed by drama that took place away from the action on the court. The match featured  longtime American icon Serena Williams versus an ultra-talented 20-year-old, Naomi Osaka. The contest was set to be a great battle: the present against the future, a Japanese-Haitian newcomer playing her idol, a woman of color who took over the sport. Yet everything changed during the second set.

Before discussing any of the drama, it must be said that Osaka displayed immense talent and outplayed Serena for the majority of the match. She beat Williams handily in the first set 6-2, followed by a closer 6-4 win in the second set. This followed her win against rising American star, Madison Keys, by the same score in the semi-finals. Her serve and forehand are quickly becoming two of the most feared in tennis, touching speeds of 125 mph and 100 mph, respectively. She is in a class of only nine other female tennis player who have reached that kind of velocity while serving. Her win stands as a major accomplishment for her career and the sport as a whole. It marks the first singles grand slam win by a Japanese national — a testament to the increasing global influence of the sport.

The drama unfolded in the second set when Williams received three code violations, costing her a full game and $17,000 in fines, the first of which occurred after Serena was given a warning when her coach was spotted making hand signals her way. Although such a warning is within the right of an umpire to call, it is extremely rare, especially in the context of a grand-slam final. 

Williams, one of the country’s most famous athletes, and a definite fan favorite, was targeted in a manner most of her less accomplished peers never experience. Understandably, the call prompted public outrage, perhaps most notably from fellow tennis legend Billie Jean King: “Coaching on every point should be allowed in tennis. It isn’t, and as a result, a player was penalized for the actions of her coach. This should not happen,” she asserted. King’s point is gaining traction in the aftermath of the match and a movement to remove this rule from the sport is gaining momentum.  

After the coaching violation, Serena bounced back to the tune of 3-1 lead in the second set, only to have Osaka gain a game by breaking her serve. This rally-crusher led to Serena breaking her racket in frustration, quickly drawing a response from the chair. Unlike the other penalties, the second violation is not nearly as questionable. Time and time again, slamming one’s racket will result in action taken by the umpire. In this case, Serena lost a point for her behavior and was visibly shaken — a foreshadowing to her last and most severe penalty.

After these two penalties were called, Williams had had it with chair umpire Carlos Ramos. Following the coaching call, Williams demanded an apology from Ramos mid-game, claiming she has never cheated in her life. Later, after she slammed her racket, she exploded on the referee calling him a “thief” and claiming his poor penalty-calling cost her the match and the U.S. Open. It seems as if the public is on Williams’ side, validating her claim that the referee would not have taken similar action if the penalized was a male player. Other male players have shown similar anger outbursts in the past with no penalty.

— Brian  Inker