It’s easy to forget now because it happened two very long weeks ago, but Serena Williams arrived at the 2018 United States Open already wronged.
Bernard Giudicelli, the president of the French Tennis Federation, which puts on the French Open, had just vowed to ban outfits like the great, black, full-body compression suit, with short sleeves and an arresting red waistband, that Williams had worn there in the spring.
“You have to respect the game and the place,” Giudicelli told Tennis Magazine. It was a complaint so vague as to say nothing about what comprised disrespect. Was her body too sheathed? Her figure too full? The skin too brown?
The French Open was Williams’s first major tournament since life-threatening complications after the birth of her daughter, and the suit, she said, helped her circulation. During her three commanding rounds at the tournament (a pectoral muscle injury forced her to pull out), she mentioned how the suit reminded her of “Black Panther” and dedicated her wearing of it to “all the moms out there who had a tough recovery from pregnancy.”
Needless to say, lots of people threw up their hands in disgust and outrage at Giudicelli’s comically ambiguous insinuation. But not Williams. When she was asked about it before the U.S. Open, any anticipated umbrage went untaken.
“Obviously, the Grand Slams have a right to do what they want to do,” Williams said. “I feel like if and when, or if they know that some things are for health reasons, then there’s no way that they wouldn’t be O.K. with it. So I think it’s fine. The president of the French Federation, he’s been really amazing. He’s been so easy to talk to.”
And voilà: a mini-fiasco had been defused. Her firm yet casual de-escalation set such a tone for both her dominant, efficient, tactically shrewd performance at the Open and the recalibration of her image (from insurmountable god to maternally human) that when she exploded in Saturday’s final against Naomi Osaka, my heart broke.
All the work Williams had put into serenity was coming undone. Osaka took the first set in a hurry, 6-2. At the start of the second, the chair umpire Carlos Ramos assessed Williams a code violation after he noticed her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, signaling to her with his hands. Her honor had been impugned. “I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose,” she told Ramos. “I’m just letting you know.”
On the changeover before the fourth game, Williams calmly reiterated to Ramos that she doesn’t cheat. He concurred, play resumed, and Williams finally broke Osaka’s serve. But when Osaka promptly broke back, Williams smashed her racket onto the court, twice, and Ramos docked her a point. Destroying equipment is a code violation. This was her second one. Ramos announced the penalty over the sound system, but she didn’t hear. Williams’s confusion became the crowd’s. Eventually, her fury at the situation was contagious, too.
Twenty years of watching Serena Williams left me nervous about where the rest of this match would go. Obviously, it was happening again.
“Again” could refer to the 2004 quarterfinal between Williams and Jennifer Capriati, which featured at least four questionable calls, including a scandalous overrule of one of Williams’s shots, costing Williams a game. At home, CBS could show you how in her shot was. But there was no on-court instant replay back then. There is now, and that overrule is a major reason. (Williams lost 6-4 in the third.)
“Again” could also refer to a tight, entertaining 2009 semifinal loss to Kim Clijsters, who’d just come back from maternity leave. It’s notorious now for Williams’s being called for a foot fault on a second serve and Williams threatening to shove a ball down the throat of a line judge, a woman named Shino Tsurubuchi, who betrayed no emotion as Williams waved a racket in her direction. She was warned, then penalized a point — it was match point. She also was fined $82,500 and put on a two-year probation of sorts.
Two Opens later, in a lopsided, losing final against Sam Stosur, Williams was docked a point for screaming her trademark “Come on!” before a rally with Stosur was actually over. “You’re a hater” she told the chair umpire Eva Asderaki. “And you’re just unattractive inside.”
Of Williams’s almost unrivaled 23 major titles, six have come at the U.S. Open. I remember some of those victories, but I also remember what a vexing tournament this has always been for her. I didn’t even mention the devastating end of her quest for a calendar-year Grand Slam in 2015. That semifinal loss to Roberta Vinci, who played a superb match, was one of the most stressful events I’ve ever watched. But she exited the tournament newly, movingly human.
It’s all enough to make Arthur Ashe Stadium a vast primal scene for Williams. “This is unbelievable. Every time I play here I have problems,” she told Ramos, justifying the question I whisper to myself before she starts any U.S. Open: Which of the bad old times would she draw upon if things go awry?
You remember Serena Williams’s temper for how it singes but also for its aberration. Actresses might win Oscars for emotional combustion, but there’s little tolerance for a nonfictional black woman undamming herself. Black female rage is an incarcerating stereotype whose social costs remain absurdly high.
So you could perhaps appreciate a kind of liberty in Williams’s tirades. Right now, there’s a very good documentary rounding the country — “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” — that argues for genius in McEnroe’s legendary tantrums. It’d be some trick to make such a movie about a woman.
Nonetheless, I’ve always found Williams’s eruptions at the U.S. Open acutely depressing. As someone who’s watched her in awe, suspense and pride, I find what’s particularly awful is the way that pride — in her excellence, in her improbable historicism, in her grit — has compelled me to make excuses for her descents into viciousness. It’s just … Serena.
We’re uneasy about how to criticize Williams’s behavior without that criticism seeming racist or sexist, given the racism and sexism that Williams and her sister Venus continue to endure. You see something like an Australian op-ed cartoonist caricaturing Williams as a kind of Jim Crow-era savage and Osaka as a faceless blonde (she’s the daughter of a Japanese mother and Haitian father) and have just a glimpse of what else Williams has been lugging with her onto the tennis court these many years.
But there’s a line a between objection and menace. Threatening to make a woman eat a tennis ball, as happened in that 2009 semifinal, seems over the line.
What felt exciting about Williams’s return to the Open this year was her mood change. The road Williams would take to Saturday’s final was the high one. It wasn’t just her dismissal of that catsuit business. It was her new attire. She spent the tournament in a tutu that she wore fitted at the waist. It was flouncy and fussy and, where the skin-tone-brown shoulder was concerned, just off. And yet, as seen on an actual tennis court, the dress was incongruously glamorous, less a grace note than an emblem of actual grace.
You couldn’t watch this year’s tournament without seeing Williams — and that grace — in an ad for something. One, for Chase, stood out. It shows her cradling her baby before handing her off so Williams can go practice. It’s impressionistically ruminative enough to feel like a mini-Terence Malick movie.
In her narration, Williams intones, “Don’t call it a comeback. I been here for years, putting suckas in fear.” They’re lyrics from L.L. Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out,” a masterpiece of blistering braggadocio and breath control. Williams tempers its violence with something more contemplative, until all of L.L.’s bellicosity is drained away.
By Saturday, the grace had begun to seep out of her. More pressure. Williams seemed embarrassed. It wasn’t simply that Williams was losing to Osaka, who, in a year, has become one of the most exciting young players in tennis (she’s 20, 16 years younger than her opponent in the final). It was that Osaka was beating Williams with power, speed, precision and poise. Her game is Serena’s.
What embarrassed Williams might also have been the feeling that, in Ramos’s penalty, she was being disgraced before a young woman who worshiped her, before millions of young people whose adoration sponsors like Nike is wooing. That final was a battle between versions of herself, for how she wants to be seen — as a mother, a woman, a legend, a victor, as elegant, honest and true — versus the many ways she’d been perceived and, on Saturday, misperceived.
One court — “my court,” as she said to Ramos — became several. And the trials might have been too many for even the greatest athlete of all time to manage.
Holding is a crucial aspect of any tennis match. You have to hold a racket and the ball before you toss it. You also have to hold your serve, which means holding your focus and your nerves, while also holding the racket and the ball. Holding is a clear sign of strength. You hold, you’re very likely to win.
There was so much Williams couldn’t hold on Saturday — her serve, the trophy, her cool. In other words, everything Osaka was able to, instead. But on the postmatch podium neither woman could hold back her tears. No one watching knew quite what had just happened, only that the joy Osaka deserved to unleash was crucially missing. She had to hold that, too.