Serena situation sparks rules talks
NEW YORK — Depending on the person and the perspective, there were all sorts of ways of viewing and interpreting what went on between Serena Williams and chair umpire Carlos Ramos during the U.S. Open final.
Here’s what the big-picture takeaway should be: Tennis needs a commissioner to oversee all aspects of the sport, someone to make sure there is consistency in the rules and the way they are applied. And whoever that might be could start off by establishing what the standards are when it comes to two of the biggest issues that arose in Williams vs. Ramos — coaching and umpiring.
The problem, essentially, is that there are too many folks in charge and too many different sets of rules. There is disparity between the ATP men’s tour and WTA women’s tour; between Grand Slam tournaments and lower-level events; and even among the Slams themselves.
It all has led to so many debates and discrepancies in tennis right now, including whether men should play best-of-three-set matches or best-of-five; whether all of the majors should join the U.S. Open in having fifth-set tiebreakers; whether there should be an “extreme heat” rule for men the way there is for women (the U.S. Tennis Association improvised one for men last week); even what the clothing rules should be, including whether the French Open should be allowed to tell Williams not to wear her catsuit again and whether a female player can change her shirt on court the way a male player can.
Let’s bring it back to Williams, who was fined a total of $17,000 by the tournament referee on Sunday, a day after her 6-2, 6-4 loss to Naomi Osaka at Flushing Meadows. That will come out of Williams’ runner-up check of $1.85 million. The breakdown of her penalties was $10,000 for “verbal abuse” (calling Ramos a “thief”), $4,000 for coaching and $3,000 for breaking her racket.
Let’s start with the racket. Yes, what she did is clearly against the rules, which call for a code violation to be assessed. Maybe it’s time to change that. Major League Baseball doesn’t fine a slugger for breaking his bat. But, sure, go ahead and fine a tennis player (in golf, a snapped club draws a fine). Just don’t make it something that, when added to other code violations, can result in the loss of a point or a game, as happened with Williams.
Then there’s the coaching. Yes, Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, was trying to send Williams a signal. How do we know? He said so after the match (although Williams was adamant they don’t have any established signals). Mouratoglou also offered a few valid points. First, he said everyone gets coaching, which is widely known in professional tennis, even if Grand Slam rules forbid it. And it is extremely rare to see it called, particularly in a major final.
Perhaps one bit of fallout from this chaotic match will be that coaching will be allowed everywhere, and not just during WTA women’s matches at non-major tournaments. Or perhaps the ban on it will be more uniformly enforced.
Which brings us to the umpiring.
Williams thought Ramos was harsher with her than umpires have been with a male player. Some, such as 18-time major champion Chris Evert, thought Ramos should have warned Williams before assessing the “verbal abuse” code violation that triggered the loss of a game.
There was also the inevitable comparison made between how Ramos handled his duties in the final and how chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani intervened during Nick Kyrgios’ second-round match. Lahyani climbed out of his chair during a changeover, stood with hands on knees, and spoke to Kyrgios, saying, among other things, “I want to help you.”
Here’s one thing that could have added some transparency to both attention-grabbing moments where the officiating became a significant part of the story: Allow — or better yet, make — chair umpires speak to the media, as happens in other sports when there is a controversial ruling.
As 2003 U.S. Open champion Andy Roddick wrote on Twitter, in reference to the Ramos and Lahyani episodes: “There needs to be some continuity in the future.”
The best way to do that is to have one voice guiding tennis from the top.