Serena Williams’s latest US Open journey began with a defense of her wardrobe.
It ended with a defense of her honor.
And in between, it included moments of joy and of awe, of frustration and fury, of anger, sadness, empathy, and amazement, so many more of the seminal, memorable sports moments regularly delivered by the most singularly dominant athlete of our, or maybe anybody’s, time.
From the ridiculous preamble provided by French Open officials deciding to ban Williams’s black catsuit from next year’s tournament (it’s apparently not respectful attire for tennis), to the penalty-laden final that left both the vanquished Williams and victorious Naomi Osaka fighting back tears, this was yet another Williams experience we won’t soon forget.
Maybe that makes you angry at her. Maybe it makes you angry for her.
But here’s betting it makes you feel something.
And that, among the many, many things that elevate Williams above and beyond the many, many sports conversations that fill our airwaves or enliven our water coolers, is a reason to celebrate her. She is an unabashed champion of her own life, willing to channel her inner confidence to the point it comes off as arrogance, willing to dispense her innate outspokenness to the point that it comes off as dismissiveness, in short, to do what so many of our male stars do on a daily basis to little recognition, but in her case turn into national headlines.
The latest example is Saturday’s contentious exchange with chair umpire Carlos Ramos, when a warning for allegedly getting signals from her coach escalated into a conduct penalty for slamming her racket onto the court and boiled over into a game penalty for her language during the ensuing argument.
With that, Williams’s 6-2, 6-4 loss to the 20-year-old Osaka was effectively over. The postmortem on her actions? That was only just beginning.
The bulk of the blame in this corner falls on Ramos. His initial decision to penalize Williams for signals he saw from her coach Patrick Mouratoglou was an overreach, a case of sticking to the letter of the law when the accepted application of said law has traditionally erred more cautiously. As Mouratoglou himself acknowledged, he was sending signals, but he does so all the time, just as nearly every coach he knows in tennis does. And as Williams herself insisted, she never looked for the signals, never saw the signals, and across all of her decades of record-setting tennis, has never availed of such coaching even when the rules allowed. Williams was incensed, feeling she’d been accused of cheating, and Ramos was boxed in, starting the clock on the ladder of violations.
They reached the top so quickly that it spoiled the end of the match. Williams railed against Ramos, repeatedly demanding an apology and calling Ramos a “thief” for stealing a game from her. And even if there was no small dose of gamesmanship in her actions as she was desperate to fend off the dominance of Osaka’s steely nerved, hard-hitting strokes, attempts to discredit her outburst as nothing more than that is both cynical and unfair.
She was clearly, and genuinely, upset. The 24th Grand Slam title she covets, the all-time record-tying one to match Margaret Court, was slipping out of reach again, this stirring, inspiring return to greatness following the difficult, life-threatening but ultimately life-affirming birth of her daughter was about to fall one match short again. Was that ultimately unfair to Osaka? Of course it was.
This remarkable young woman, this compelling story of a Haitian/Japanese multiracial miracle brought up in the shadow of the Venus and Serena way, this tennis prodigy who fulfilled a childhood dream of not simply playing her idol Serena in a Grand Slam final but beating her too, was left saying “sorry” to a crowd still raining boos over the postgame awards presentation. That felt so wrong. By the time Osaka got into the stands and fell into her mother’s hug, in the way her mom kept patting her back and rubbing her hair and whispering in her ear, who couldn’t imagine how bittersweet they felt?
But there was Williams on the court asking the crowd to turn positive, replacing those boos with applause, doing her best to change the tone of what had become such an emotionally conflicted day.
The Williams of old might not have done that. The Williams who argued her way through US Opens past, in 2004 for a series of bad calls against Jennifer Capriati, in 2009 for a foot fault that concluded her demise against Kim Clijsters and left her threatening physical harm to the lineswoman, might not have found such postgame grace. She’s changed. Sometimes we forget just how long Williams has been doing this — she competed in her first US Open in 1998 and won the first of her six titles a year later — and how much she has grown up before our eyes.
Would any of us want to be judged or remembered by our worst moment? Williams has definitely been wrong in the past, and no doubt at times she was wrong on Saturday, but in the end, she chose positivity, praising Osaka.
“She was really, really consistent,” Williams said. “Her game is always super consistent. She played really well. She made a lot of shots. And she was so focused. Whenever I had a break point, she came up with a great serve. Honestly there’s a lot I can learn from her in that match.
“That’s why I said I don’t want to answer the questions [about the end]. This is her moment, so stop booing. She doesn’t deserve it. I don’t deserve it.”
We don’t deserve her. So let’s not call this a meltdown or call her hysterical, or fall prey to the easy clichés we hang on women who dare to act the way Williams often does. Maybe you don’t see the sexist double standard Williams said “blows my mind” and later called “outrageous,” maybe you think John McEnroe’s tirades of the past or Roger Federer’s four-letter words in the present are just passion played out, maybe you think it was fine that female player Alize Cornet was assessed a penalty for daring to reverse a shirt she had put on back-to-front while on court (exposing her sports bra in the process) but have no problem when Rafael Nadal routinely finds himself shirtless during changeovers. That’s not what Williams, or in the opinion here, any clear-eyed viewer sees.
“I can’t sit here and say I wouldn’t say he’s a thief because I thought he took a game from me, but I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things,” Williams said. “I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and all kinds of stuff, and for me to say a thief and for him to take a game it made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He never took a game from a man because they said thief.”Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.