On Saturday, many tennis fans witnessed an emotional, gut-wrenching conclusion to the U.S. Open. They also witnessed exactly what women of color lifting each other up looks like—even during personal devastation.
In this case, 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, who was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, won her first ever Grand Slam title by defeating her tennis idol, Serena Williams. But the mood in the wake of the game was hardly celebratory.
For many, the joy for Osaka’s hard-won victory was soured by the way Williams was treated during the match. During the second set, the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, gave Williams a game penalty after he said that she had accrued three violations: receiving coaching, smashing a racket in frustration, and then verbally abusing the umpire after the initial penalties.
Williams refuted two of the three penalties, growing angry at the notion that the umpire thought she was cheating by receiving advice from her coach. “I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose,” she said. As she tried to defend herself against the umpire’s call of verbal abuse minutes later, after she called him a “thief,” she was heard saying: “There are a lot of men out here who have said a lot of things and do not get that punishment. Because I am a woman you are going to take this away from me? That is not right.”
The crowd loudly booed U.S. Open officials after the match, leaving Osaka in tears as she stood on the podium, awaiting her trophy. When given the mic, Williams used her platform not to trash talk the umpire or the U.S. Open, or lament her loss, but to ask the crowd to stop booing and instead use the moment to celebrate Osaka’s victory. “Let’s make this the best moment we can and we’ll get through it,” she said. “Let’s give everyone the credit where credit’s due.”
For her part, Osaka spent much of her victory lap thanking her parents and praising Williams, saying that it was an honor and dream to play her in such a high-stakes game. In a post-match interview, Williams said that during the trophy ceremony she looked at Osaka, and thought, “I definitely don’t want her to feel like that.”
The U.S. Open final is the latest in a series of recent moments that have left fans of women’s tennis outraged. Just last week at the U.S. Open, Alize Cornet was penalized for briefly taking her shirt off in order to turn it around, after realizing that it was backwards. Many tennis fans ridiculed the call, noting that male tennis players take their shirts off frequently without getting in trouble.
And only a few weeks ago, the French Open said it would introduce a dress code that would ban outfits like the catsuit worn by Williams during Wimbledon—a suit she wears to prevent blood clots, after a pulmonary embolism in 2011 left her “on her death bed,” Williams said at the time.
“It will no longer be accepted,” the French Tennis Federation President Bernard Giudicelli said. “One must respect the game and the place.”
Taking a game away from Williams for using the word “thief” during such a high-stakes match is unlikely to do much to quash the notion that a double standard exists between men and women in today’s competitive tennis field. And the stakes of that double standard can feel even higher for women of color. The support for Williams on Saturday—and throughout her career—comes not just from appreciation for her rare talent, but in part because some fans have an enduring memory of how difficult it is for women of color to make it in expensive, mostly white sports.
To see Williams’s comeback after a traumatic birth stymied over seemingly minor infractions seems unnecessary and malicious. To see the devastation that those penalties wrought on two women of color at the top of their sport, during what should have been a joyous time, is heartbreaking.
During a post-game interview Williams was undeterred: “I’m here to fight for women’s rights and women’s equality,” she said. “The fact that I have to go through this is an example. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.”
Superstar athletes are rarely as generous, or as classy, or as outright talented as Serena Williams was on Saturday. The events of the U.S. Open show both how difficult it can be for women of color to be accepted as they are, and just how thoroughly she has rejected the status quo. Being the best may not be enough to take home the Grand Slam trophy, but Williams is winning at something much more consequential.