A homage to inconsistency: thoughts from the US Open

Carlos Ramos during the infamous match
From: www.supersport.com

It started with on-court coaching from supposedly tennis’ most impartial source, a match umpire. At the change of ends in his second-round US Open match against Pierre Hughes-Herbert, with the mercurial Australian “tanking” at 4-6, 0-3 down, umpire Mohamed Lahyani climbed down from his chair for a well-meaning intervention with Nick Kyrgios which went far beyond the expectation of, or Lahyani’s reputation for, professional neutrality. In fact, it most likely helped Kyrgios rebound to beat Herbert. Official regulations dictated that the most Lahyani should have given Kyrgios was a warning for “lack of best efforts”. Contrast his excessively broad interpretation of the rules with umpire Christian Rask’s strict penalisation of French player Alizé Cornet for changing her top on court the previous day: a blatant double standard. Male players have never suffered for such an “offence”.

A boisterous row over the inconsistency and sexism of officials erupted at Flushing Meadows even before one considers their misinformation of players over the “heat rule”, preferential scheduling by tournament organisers, and of course, the events of Saturday night. As Serena Williams’ outburst refocuses global attention on the imprecise application of the rulebook – particularly, she suggests, for women – tennis officialdom has a lot to answer for.

Williams vs. Ramos

The drama of Williams’ encounter with umpire Carlos Ramos in her championship match defeat to Naomi Osaka has been covered extensively by journalists; that rightly reflects its underlying significance. The original punishable offence of Serena’s team came from her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, who admitted after the match that he was making hand gestures as a form of “coaching”. This is a code violation which Ramos was correct to punish with a warning (the first in a series of four in-match “strikes”: warning; point penalty; game penalty; default). Some players would argue on experience that a “soft”, unrecorded warning could have been given to Williams, but this merely reinforces the issue at hand: that different umpires interpret the rules differently. Serena misunderstood that the warning was official, having calmly discussed her predicament with the umpire (“I never cheat; I would rather lose”), and so when she was deducted a point for a later racquet smash (another code violation), her subsequent behaviour is difficult to defend.

Ramos’ sanctions had no relation to Serena’s sex. He is nothing but consistent, and only appears draconian in a sea of more tolerant umpires. Notably, his refusal to view any player as bigger than the game, and therefore deserving of leniency, has attracted the criticism of such greats as Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Venus Williams. Serena’s accusation of unequal treatment is an understandable product of the massive stress of her situation, for sure. Williams was chasing a 24th Grand Slam title to tie with Margaret Court for most ever; she was being comprehensively outplayed by a remarkable 20-year-old in her first Slam final; and she no doubt contends with the lived experience of routine discrimination as a black woman.[1] However, this gives her no license to recourse to her inner diva and detract from the brilliance of Osaka. Williams’ statements suggested an ugly sense of entitlement - to Ramos: “you owe me an apology” and “you’ll never be on another court of mine”.

Williams had the power to direct the passions of a 23,000-strong Arthur Ashe Stadium, and made it about herself. Maybe she stopped the crowd booing in her concession speech, but only after Osaka had apologised for winning, in tears. In Serena’s press conference, dressing up excessive behaviour as "fighting for women's rights" rang hollow, except in the rose-tinted glasses of Katrina Adams of the US Tennis Association (see her statement here). Serena is an indispensable spokeswoman for race and gender issues, but it is disappointing for her reputation and the sport that the inconsistency debate has gained centre stage – as it should – but in such a way.

The Extreme Heat Rule - and scheduling

With temperatures topping 35C this US Open fortnight, the tournament referee extended the tournament’s extreme heat rule – a ten-minute break when sets are split, long in place for female players – universally. This meant, however, a lack of knowledge amongst male players about when it was to be enacted for them (after three split sets) and who they were permitted to contact in the locker room during the break. In his otherwise encouraging second round defeat to Fernando Verdasco, Andy Murray had to report to the chair umpire personally that Verdasco had been abusing the rule by soliciting his coach’s advice. (Verdasco denied this, suggesting it was Marcos Baghdatis’ coach, to which Murray replied on Instagram #liarliarpantsonfire.) Officially, players must be escorted by a supervisor to prevent this, but no such supervisor had materialised, and nor was there any means to time the ten minutes. As fellow Brit Cameron Norrie discovered in his heat break, not only was there no arranged refuge for players on the outside courts (he went to the press room!), but he was docked a point by his umpire for tardiness, despite timing only nine minutes himself. Dominika Cibulkova expressed the same grievance. The root of the problem? Inconsistent application based on ignorance of established processes on the women’s tour, or plain misinformation.

In addition, charges against the USTA for inconsistent scheduling arose, perhaps as a by-product of the heat problems. Maria Sharapova, who won the tournament in 2006 and continues her “comeback” from a drugs suspension, was given four night sessions in Arthur Ashe Stadium in a row. It would seem this eased her passage through the tournament – until her loss to Carla Suarez Navarro, she was 23-0 in such sessions at the Open, which obviously are cooler and less humid (suiting her aggressive style) than day sessions. Sharapova clearly fills stadia and raises American television ratings, but her treatment presents a morally dubious message. Does she deserve it? She is nowhere near her best; a rigid, clumsy shadow of the pre-2016 champion with a serve to rival something I’d produce in the local park. She has occupied slots which might give recognition to other top players on Arthur Ashe – female No. 1 Simona Halep, or No. 4 Angelique Kerber, possibly would not have had to lose in the second stadium.
Maria Sharapova hitting a ball
From: www.scmp.com

The players themselves

Inconsistency is not merely a charge to be levelled at officials, but the players too. For the second Grand Slam in a row, the women’s Top 10 failed to make any impact in the second week. All ten lost before the semi-finals; at Wimbledon, only Karolina Pliskova made it to the fourth round. As I’ve argued before, this speaks to the strength in depth of women’s tennis – exciting new talents like Osaka and Arnya Sabalenka are making an impact in a way which is still forthcoming on the men’s tour – but there are no great rivalries to capture the attention of the uninitiated. Alexander Zverev’s woes at Grand Slam level continue, despite his dominance below: he has only ever made one quarterfinal. Perhaps there is an issue of mental conditioning which, on the men’s side, keeps the Big Four (if one replaces Murray with Del Potro) relatively unchallenged. Here, Roger Federer is the asterisk, having lost to the virtually unknown Australian John Millman, however I’d argue that this was mainly a function of the stifling New York heat than his inevitable decline. Remember, commentators were forecasting Federer’s demise in 2010.

Still, perhaps tennis’ biggest disappointment after the US Open is Nick Kyrgios. His dismal “performance” against Herbert brings the game into disrepute. From the perspective of a customer parting with their hard-earned cash to watch two trained professionals competing at a level appropriate with the magnitude, prestige, and pecuniary remunerations of a Grand Slam match, who could blame Mohamed Lahyani for asking Kyrgios to stop arsing about and try? It is well-known that only the biggest matches motivate him; Kyrgios tried his hardest in a crushing defeat to Federer in round three. But he will always be inconsistent in such matches without a coach and a commitment to the training, conditioning, and dispatching of players over whom he has the clear talent edge. Kyrgios shows an arrogance to mask his fear of being seen to try hard (lest he lose) which has become tiresome. Perhaps it is time commentators and Lahyani alike dispensed with that well-worn nonsense: “but he’s good for the game”.
Tennis needs consistently professional players who give every ounce of their effort on court, and fair, unbiased officiating to reciprocate it. It needs Nadals, Del Potros and Djokovics, Haleps, Stephenses and Naomi Osakas. It needs the USTA to dispense with its preferential treatment of the ailing drug cheat Maria Sharapova, and its unblinkered protection of Serena Williams. It needs more umpires like Carlos Ramos; fewer – like Lahyani – liable to aid individuals based on some arbitrary judgment of their contribution to the game. If the rules are broken, then change them: there are arguments for on-court coaching, better scheduling to work around extreme heat, and “soft” warnings before players are thrown the rulebook. But only through the relentless pursuit of fairness will the sport of tennis rebuild a reputation eroded by supposed player entitlement and unconscious biases. Only then will Grand Slam champions like Naomi Osaka gain the recognition they deserve.

[1] While it does not pertain to the consistency debate, yesterday’s cartoon by Mark Knight in Australia’s Herald Sun (see here) might be indicative of the casual racism that Williams faces. I won’t profess outrage and disgust at a lazy portrayal (this elicits an equal and opposite reaction which does nothing to educate ignorance away), but underscore that the image is satirical, rather than outright malicious. Knight’s aim in exaggerating Serena’s features at the expense of Ramos or Osaka is surely to present Williams as a petulant baby, hogging the limelight, not echo a Jim Crow-era characterisation of African-Americans. Nonetheless, the potential for offence is obvious.
Williams and Osaka embracing
From: www.sportingnews.com