History was made this week when Serena Williams equaled Margaret Court’s all time Grand Slam record of 24 titles at her home court in New York, nearly two decades after winning her first major on the same court.
Sorry folks, but this is not the opening we were expecting to read the Monday after Serena’s shock defeat at the US Open Women’s Final on Saturday. The worthy champion, Naomi Osaka, understandably broke many hearts when she executed a near flawless victory over her idol opponent. But in many ways, the main story was about Serena’s outburst on court against the referee, Carlos Ramos. Her polarizing behaviour had everyone taking sides, some agreeing that the cautions were over the top and others saying that the rules were the rules and simply had to be followed.
I love Serena. I wish it didn’t end this way but knowing Serena and the position she was in, I feel grateful she didn’t walk off the court. That would have been far worse but probably more commensurate with what she was feeling that fateful night on Centre Court.
Right from the start of the match, Serena struggled with her serve. Serena’s serve was broken in the very first game of the match when she double faulted on break point. Let’s take a step back. Serena’s serve is the third fastest women’s serve in history, with her ability to place hot serves at crazy angles ensuring that the entire rally on her serve is dictated from the first hit of the ball. Serena owns the court when she serves and the opponent becomes her guest messenger, engaging in a ballboy shuttle run, fitness test dashing all over the place to keep up with the agility lesson.
Saturday was different. Serena could not find her serve in the first set. With 6 double faults and counting, Naomi was increasing in confidence that her plan would work: draw out the older, slower Queen of Tennis into a baseline slugfest and chase down every ball while keeping her serves clean and varied. It worked. Serena had two break points handed to her opponent on unforced errors, and lost the first set 6 – 2.
Today I learnt that Serena is the queen of comebacks. Three times, more than any other player in history, she has come back from match points to win Grand Slams, often firing aces to pull herself out of tight corners. But this time, Serena could not put a top spin on her serve. She had to find something different. A few approaches to the net in the second set rattled her opponent who obviously had prepared for a baseline battle and not one that saw an aggressive Serena at the net. Serena approached the net 4 times and won 3 of those points.
Rewind to the semi final against Sevastova where Serena was very comfortable on the scoreboard and began approaching the net to take response time away from her nimble opponent. Serena won 21 out of the 25 points she approached the net in that semifinal walkover, commenting afterwards that she usually only approached the net to shake hands after overwhelming her opponents with her serve, speed, power and ball placement. Using a similar approach in this match against Naomi would have given her a fighting chance: forget about hot serves (Naomi is one of the best returners of serve, as Madison Keys, another hard hitter, discovered in her semifinal match against the ninja warrior), focus on ball placement and getting that first serve in, while attacking the net more. This was something Serena could do from a comfortable position, while she was a break up.
Serena broke Naomi and held serve to go 3 – 1 up in the second set and the crowd went ecstatic. Serena was back! She was comfortable on the scoreboard and was perfectly positioned to initiate her change in strategy to attack the net and give Naomi a Serena no one could have prepared for beforehand: the highly intelligent net player. This was the turning point of the match. Then Carlos Ramos the Umpire struck.
In the midst of all the jubilation at Serena going 3 – 1 up, he managed to spot her coach giving her a signal (two open palms with thumbs up, thrusting forward with the four fingers). I don’t think anyone understood what exactly he was trying to tell her, but I was already thinking she was going to attack the net and that was my interpretation of what he told her. Serena from the angle she was standing, thought he was giving her a double thumbs up, and turned to go face Naomi’s serve, with hopes of raising her second set advantage to an impossible 4 – 1, only to be called back by the umpire for receiving coaching during a match.
Serena was thrown off. To have noticed the coach giving signals at a time everyone was rising to give a standing ovation and to be so certain that he was trying to coach the greatest player of all time, Carlos had to be looking out for it, like he was expecting it. Something felt really off about how he interrupted her comeback moment, not to give her a verbal warning or discuss what he thought he saw with her, but to give her a code violation right off the bat with no prior history of such a crime being committed. She said her peace and went to take Naomi’s serve but it rattled within her – something rattled, something familiar, something like the metallic taste of blood that felt out of place in a celebration and more in tune with a battlefield. She felt attacked, targeted, scrutinized extra for no reason.
Then it clicked what felt so familiar: she was a black woman in the white man’s world of tennis.
Her extra drug testing highlight earlier this year, her catsuit ban in the French Open, even her encounter with doctors who took her word with a pinch of salt while fighting for her life giving birth to Alexa (the only heir-apparent to Serena’s throne) all came flooding back. Her integrity was being questioned, again. Her words, her accomplishments, her accolades needed extra validation to be true, again. She was being picked out for extra security checks again. She couldn’t shake the thought and listlessly played Naomi’s serve game, unable to shut the door of the second set in Naomi’s face, letting her back in the game at 3-2.
In between breaks Serena continued to demand an apology (a bit like what the US Open issued to Alize Cornet for the referee sanction for taking off her shirt to change because she was hot). The distraction cost her a service game – Naomi broke Serena to level up at 3 – 3, with Naomi to serve. That was when Serena lost it, and smashed her racket in frustration, her second violation of the night.
In tennis, when you get a second violation, your opponent is handed an extra point. Serena looked up and saw that Naomi was to start serve with 15 – 0 and was even more upset. When Naomi comfortably held to 3 – 4, Serena took it out on the umpire at changeover, calling him a thief and protesting her innocence in the process, asking for the match referee to intervene. Backed into a corner, her fighting spirit, usually focused on the player across the net, was directed instead at the umpire, who struck back at the personal attack by handing Serena her third code violation. This meant Naomi was given a full game for the penalty, leaving Serena, who just minutes before was in control of the second set, serving to stay in the match at 3 – 5. Serve she did to get to 4- 5, but when Naomi had to serve for the match, she took her chance like a true champion and held serve to take the championship 6 – 2, 6 – 4. Serena had lost 4 of the 5 games played since the first penalty from the umpire for receiving coaching at 3 – 1.
The rest is history. The tears came down, the boos flowed, Carlos the umpire was too embarrassed to take his token gift, and neither Serena nor Naomi could answer any questions at the end of the emotional match. The mood had been killed at a crucial part of the match because the referee thought Serena was receiving coaching, and penalized her, despite her protests that it was just a thumbs up.
Could Serena have handled everything differently? Could she have sucked it up and faced her match like a professional and then expressed herself fully in the after-match presser? Could she have taken the high road, been the bigger person, smiled for the cameras and acted like everything was OK? Yes she could have, like she’d been doing all year, all career. The problem is, you don’t know when you will reach breaking point, when the last straw will fall, when you will eventually be fed up, when the well of all the frustration will flow unchecked.
It could just well be at the most important grand slam final of your life.