Serena, sexism and the gender debate

Game, set and match Serena?

Published on 10 September 2018

The debate surrounding Serena Williams’ code violations during the US Open final at the weekend has now spread well beyond the tennis world.

Was she a victim of sexism? Would a male player have been similarly punished? Or was she simply a player on the verge of losing a Grand Slam who lost her temper?

Serena, generally considered the greatest female tennis player of all time, has now been fined $17,000 (£13,100) for the code violations that included calling the umpire a "liar" and "thief" during the match.

Williams, beaten by Naomi Osaka, was docked a game for verbal abuse and had a point penalty for racquet smashing and a code violation for coaching.

She later said it was "sexist" to have been penalised a game.

But her comments have prompted debate within, and beyond the tennis world. While some have praised the player for exposing what they view as a long-standing double standard, others have accused her of wrongly labelling the incident as sexist.

Dr Paul Davis, from the University of Sunderland is a senior lecturer in the Sociology of Sport and has written several papers on sporting ethics. Here he calls for calm in the debate before we jump on the pro/anti Serena bandwagon.

Dr Davis said: “Billie-Jean King latches onto a broad truth when she says that whereas ‘emotional’ behaviour in a male tennis player might be described as ‘outspoken’, the same behaviour in a female player is penalised and decried as ‘hysterical’.

“King is incorrect that male players suffer no repercussions - male players have been penalised for on-court outbursts - and is also too categorical in implying that emotional male conduct never draws negative descriptions – tennis legend John McEnroe suffered both fines and vociferous criticism for his volatile behaviour.

“It is also true that tennis in general, like sport and society in general, is marked by a broader sexism that often disadvantages women and girls, the fact that Saturday’s US Open Women’s Final was the best of three sets and the male equivalent the best of five might be an example.

“However, it is nevertheless premature to conclude that Serena Williams was the victim of sexism on Saturday night. We need to be mindful of the fact that player penalties are finally the decision of the individual umpire presiding over the match.

“We therefore need to ask whether Williams’ umpire, Ramos, has been faced with male player behaviour equivalent to that of Williams’ on Saturday, and how he has reacted if so. If he has faced such behaviour from a male on court and has reacted with more leniency than he showed Williams, then suspicions of sexism towards Williams seem well-grounded, albeit there could yet be other explanations for the imbalance. If he has never faced male behaviour equivalent to that of Williams’, then we lack the data we need to investigate whether Serena Williams was, in the precise context of Saturday night, a victim of sexism.”

Williams' claims of sexism in the US Open final have been backed by the governing body of women's tennis. WTA chief executive Steve Simon said the umpire showed Williams a different level of tolerance over Saturday's outbursts than if she had been a man. However, Dr Davis, again, would say that Simon is not entitled to that claim without detailed knowledge of Ramos’s umpiring history. No one, it seems, has so far come forward with compelling evidence that Ramos treats male and female players differently.  

Dr Davis added: “We do know that Ramos has given code violations in the past two years to Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, so he is not unwilling to give code violations to male players. Williams claimed that Ramos had never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief’, which suggests she is sure a male player has called Ramos a thief (as she did), but again, we need to know if this is the case and how Ramos reacted if so.

“Similarly, even if Marion Bartoli is right that male players have got away with ‘ten times worse’ in their comments to umpires, that won’t establish sexism towards Williams on Saturday. We would need to know in addition whether Ramos has faced ten times worse from male players - even if it is hard to know what is ten times worse than calling someone a liar and a thief, and, again, how he has reacted if so.

“Those eager to leap to the partisan comforts of ‘Sexism!’ or ‘Stop whingeing, Serena!’ would be well-advised to temper their fever, consider the issue with some calm and be prepared for any conclusion, wait for whatever evidence we can get and be prepared for any conclusion - including ‘we don’t really know’.