By now, many of us know the story of what happened at the Women’s U.S. Open finals on Saturday.
During the match between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, in which Osaka was ahead, Chair umpire Carlos Ramos pushed Williams towards the breaking point, personally and with regard to the match, with a series of mystifying calls.
When Williams demanded an apology from the ump for alleging she had cheated during the course of play, Ramos docked a full game point from Williams, effectively ending the match and handing Osaka the victory.
To call what happened Saturday afternoon a perversion is correct: many tennis fans (and fans of Williams, specifically) entered Saturday feeling optimistic. The day would bring either the return of one of its all-time greatest players to form, or it would herald a bright new champion. In either case, it should have been a coronation.
It wasn’t. And because it wasn’t, we have, once again, the public reckoning of what it looks like when institutional racism and sexism mar a sport. It is a story we must tell, the story of how a women’s rage—how the rage of black women in particular—is marginalized and vilified.
Serena herself has told it, her voice breaking as she acknowledged what many women of color know to be true: that because of the ugly, high-profile way in which she was treated, she will inevitably smooth the path for those behind her, like Osaka.
There are Serena’s peers and predecessors, like Billie Jean King and James Blake, both affirming that what happened to Williams was the double standard she said it was (their voices sadly necessary, as black women are so rarely believed when they call out their mistreatment).
There are the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins, New York Magazine’s Rebecca Traister, and the Undefeated’s Soraya McDonald, all of whom articulate with great clarity and careful, measured rage the context and implications of what happened to Williams and Osaka on that dreary New York afternoon at Flushing Meadows.
“Even when it wasn’t a victory, [Williams] was still doing all the work,” Traister wrote. McDonald noted that the moment was as punishing for Osaka as it was for Williams—and served as a warning to her of what she could expect from a tennis world mired in whiteness and maleness.
These perspectives are necessary. They help us digest the bitter pill of what happened. For me, these perspectives both validate my rage and assuage it.
So you saw it, too? You felt the knot in your throat too, hearing Williams’ voice break as she asked for the apology she deserved? You felt that bone-deep exhaustion?
There’s comfort in having injustice be confirmed among a group of witnesses. There’s comfort to sharing the rage that Williams was denied.
But Williams and Osaka deserved so much more than that. Black women deserve more than that. Women of color and tennis fans and anyone who cares about witnessing genius in its prime deserve more than that.
For years, I have wished the press could keep up with Williams’ genius—and yes, I do believe her to be an athletic genius. That her exemplary game could be the focus of the stories we write about her; that we can parse and recite her game stats the way we do for the LeBron Jameses and Steph Currys of this world, every post-game breakdown an opportunity to relive the velocity and profundity of their historic accomplishments.
But that’s not the story we tell about Williams. Instead, we get story after story about “furious rants” and assessments of her character. We get stories about how womanly her body is, and whether or not her mostly white competitors want to emulate it (or vice versa). We must talk about the racist trials she’s endured out of necessity. Because that toxic elixir of sexism and racism commonly referred to as misogynoir—keep bubbling up.
But there are other stories we should be able to write about Williams: ones that aren’t about her power, her rage, or her athleticism, but center her grace. That knowing embrace between her and Osaka at the net, a mutual glow of appreciation between the two competitors, one a lifelong idol to the other.
It should have been the moment of the match. Had it not been for hubris of a chair ump, it could have been the story.
I want to write about the connection we saw when Williams implored the crowd at Flushing Meadows, still frothing with rage, to stop booing and recognize that a 20-year-old Haitian-Japanese woman had just won her first Grand Slam—also the first for Japan. I want to write about how shallow our understanding of competition is: that personal ruthlessness is a marker of high-profile competition.
Playing Williams was Osaka’s dream, and after playing a splendid tournament, after beating her opponent Madison Keys in straight sets in the semifinals, when Osaka was asked what message she had for Serena, Osaka instinctively replied, “I love you.”
I was struck by the purity of that declaration and the sweetness of it—as many were—and was disappointed when Twitter users dismissed the comment as “weak.” Some predicted that Osaka would be steamrolled by Williams in the final.
She wasn’t. By all appearances, Osaka would have won that match even without the faulty calls; would have fulfilled the dream of beating the very woman who inspired her.
“When I step on the court, I feel like a different person, right? I’m not a Serena fan. I’m just a tennis player playing another tennis player,” Osaka said at a press conference after the match.
“But then when I hugged her at the net ... when I hugged her at the net, I felt like a little kid again.”
For decades, Williams has challenged our perceptions of who a tennis player, and who a superstar female athlete, could be. How she should act. What she should wear. She is still smoothing the path for the women after her. In a perverse moment, Osaka and Williams raised the bar in terms of what we could expect from two of the best tennis players in the world: eloquent rage meeting compassion. Love forged in competition.
It should have been a passing of a torch. It should have been a glowing moment for both of them: the vanguard and the up-and-comer.
If only that were the only story we had to tell.