The American legend was the victim of a draconian enforcement of the rules in the US Open final. But her reaction exposed the one flaw in her game
The venerable boxing trainer Cus DAmato used to say that emotion, particularly fear, is like fire. If you make it work for you, then it can cook your food, keep you warm and give you light in the dark. But if you let it go out of control, it can burn your house down.
Only Serena Williams herself knows whether her shocking meltdown at the end of the most controversial US Open final ever staged in which she was beaten by the brilliant 20-year-old Naomi Osaka was down to a surrender to emotion or, as she framed it in the chaotic aftermath, an impassioned stand against sexism. But what, to one of the sports fiercest and most unsparing competitors, could be scarier than being outplayed by a young lion who appeared more athletic, who was serving faster and returning everything fired her direction with metronomic consistency? What could be more unsettling for Williams, who turns 37 this month, than watching another opportunity to tie Margaret Courts record for grand slam titles slipping from her grasp when theres no telling how many more chances lie ahead?
Williams simply didnt have answers on Saturday afternoon for the demands put forth by Osaka. At once the feelgood vibe of Serenas much-publicized comeback following the birth of her daughter, celebrated in lucrative ad campaigns and a glossy five-part documentary series, felt like it was crashing down around her. Its one thing to have the end of your career in sight, but perhaps Williams felt like her time was passing right in that moment.
Then one harsh call and boom.
The regrettable denouement of Saturdays match is a Rorschach test for tennis fans: some think Williams was the victim of a gross injustice from an overzealous umpire while others believe her response was conduct unbecoming of a professional. The one thing everyone can agree on is that officials intruding in this way is unwanted, even if chair umpire Carlos Ramos was correct under the rules in all three code violations that prompted Williams outburst: the first a warning for illegal coaching, the second a point penalty for racquet abuse, the third a game penalty for verbal abuse. Whats most unfortunate is that Williams either couldnt or wouldnt let it go. And not just for herself: it means that the day afterwards we are talking about Williams rather than just how brilliant Osaka was in victory.
If youve watched Osaka for any length of time over the last year or two, but especially over the last fortnight in Flushing Meadows, you knew that Saturdays match had the chance to be special. The pressure on Williams as the favourite meant Osaka was playing with house money and could swing freely. Had she been beaten, there would have been no shame in losing to the greatest player of all time playing before a partisan crowd.
The only question was whether a 20-year-old in her first grand-slam final could hold her nerve. It wasnt long before it was obvious she could. Even after Osaka broke Williams in her second and third service games and cruised to the opening set, it was inevitable the American would make her trademark surge. It was far less clear whether it would be enough. The genius of Williamss late-career renaissance is her knack to shift her level seemingly at will. If the serve is betraying her or a few loose points cost her an opening set, shes proven time and again capable of elevating her game: flattening her groundstrokes, putting more on her serve.
But against Osaka it wasnt clear if third gear would be enough or if fourth is even there anymore. Maybe thats where the fear creeps in. And maybe thats where you look for a way out, not unlike her infamous loss to Kim Clijsters in the 2009 US Open where Williams was called for a foot fault serving at 4-6, 5-6. Her reaction, to threaten the lineswoman while on a code violation, expedited a finish that had taken on a sense of the inevitable: the tennis equivalent of Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfields ear. Now a rule is a rule whatever the score is, but Ramoss call in context was dubious. On Saturday, Ramos might not have been wrong, but that doesnt make it right (indeed, Williams is not the first player to clash with him: Rafael Nadal has also complained about Ramoss exuberant adherence to the rulebook).