Let me be the first to say tennis star Serena Williams is an inspiration by every metric. As an African-American woman, a mother and a 23-time Grand Slam champion, she is living proof that women can exude both power and grace and that adversity is no match for resilience. However, in regard to her recent controversial match at the U.S. Open, Williams is fighting the wrong fight.

For those unfamiliar with the situation, Williams lost to first-time Grand Slam Champion Naomi Osaka in the U.S. Open women’s final after chair umpire Carlos Ramos made three calls against her that proved incredibly consequential to the match’s outcome. The center of the controversy is her third code violation for “verbal abuse,” which she earned by calling Ramos a “liar” and a “thief.” As per the official U.S. Open rules, Williams received a game penalty, which resulted in a collective $17,000 fine and shifted the match drastically in Osaka’s favor.

Following the penalty, Williams, in tears, asserted male tennis players who “do a lot worse” do not receive such harsh punishments. Her comments have sparked a massive debate online with prominent members of the tennis community such as Novak Djokovic and Billie Jean King weighing in and people from all walks of life offering their support and criticism.

The truth is both Ramos and Williams are to blame for the controversy that overshadowed a historic U.S. Open final. Williams lost her temper in a moment when she needed it most, and Ramos neglected to consider the gravity of his calls in such a high-stakes match. That being said, Williams’ point still has validity. Regardless of her actions at the U.S. Open, the onslaught of backlash against Williams is proof that sexism in tennis is a real problem.

Following the controversy, Australian newspaper Herald Sun released a cartoon depicting a monstrous Williams furiously stomping on her racket. The cartoon is a blatantly offensive illustration that perpetuates degrading stereotypes of Black women, and while it has been met with considerable backlash, it is far from the first time Williams has dealt with sexism and racism during her career.

Williams has long been associated with derogatory terms like “gorilla,” “manly” and “savage” by both the public and sports commentators. This is not a problem white men face. We let the athlete entertain us with her amazing power and dynamism on the court and then criticize her for developing the body and grit to do so. Williams can hit serves that exceed 120 mph, so why are we expecting her to have anything less than a muscular build?

Williams has also faced her fair share of adversity on the court. Even as a 23-time Grand Slam champion, a four-time Olympic gold medalist and No. 1 ranked tennis player for 186 consecutive weeks, her accomplishments are still trivialized compared to those of men. After a 14-month maternity leave, prior to which she held a No. 1 ranking, Williams was not welcomed back to the tennis world with open arms and praise but instead knocked down to No. 453 and offered an unseeded position at the French Open. To make matters worse, Williams’ eye-catching and empowering black catsuit, which she wore to her first match, was promptly banned from the tournament.

The fact that taking time off to have a child resulted in such a significant blow to her athletic standing is sexist. The fact that her choice of clothing was a conflict at a tournament designed to measure physical ability is sexist. Williams is an unparalleled athletic force, and she has no shortage of accolades to prove it, yet her femininity proves to be a constant barrier to her success. Time and time again, the athlete has battled opposition her male counterparts have never once seen.

Williams may be the most well-known victim of sexism is professional tennis but she is far from an anomaly. Archaic double standards hurt all women in the sport one way or another. Whether it is through a code violation for a quick on-court shirt change as was the case for Alize Cornet or a commentator’s request for a “twirl” after a sweeping Australian Open victory as was the case of Eugenie Bouchard, sexism in tennis is a double-edged sword — it hinders women’s ability to achieve success and diminishes its value when they do.

The Williams-Ramos controversy was an unfortunate conflict in which neither party was completely innocent, but Williams is not wrong to point out the flagrant injustices against women in the sport. At the end of the day, tennis is a game of physical prowess and fine-tuned skill. Players like Williams, Cornet and Bouchard have invested thousands of hours of practice into their sport and have developed athletic capabilities of which the rest of us could not even dream. It is time we let those hard-earned capabilities be the sole determining factor in their failures and successes. It is time we recognize these women as athletes first.


Amanda Zhang can be reached at amanzhan@umich.edu.

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