Tennis is a sport famous—or maybe infamous—for its players’ tantrums and meltdowns.
John McEnroe has a legacy practically defined by breaking rackets and screaming profanity. Andre Agassi rode his hotheaded reputation to worldwide endorsement fame in the 90s.
That is not how things went last night for Serena Williams, though.
During last night’s women’s final in the US Open, Williams seemingly could not get a break, being issued violation after violation for simply defending herself.
First, umpire Carlos Ramos accused Williams of receiving coaching from the stands.
Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, motioned for Williams to go to the net more often. Mouratoglou admitted to the motioning but said he doubted the athlete was paying attention to him.
Williams broke her racket in frustration in response to the violation, for which Ramos then docked her a point. In response to the seemingly outsized punishment, Williams protested by saying:
“You stole a point from me, you’re a thief.”
Ramos doubled-down by issuing an entire game penalty.
Understandably, Williams was upset about what not only seemed an unfair and outsized punishment, but also what amounted to an accusation of cheating.
Williams told Ramos:
“I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose”
“I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her.”
“I’ve never cheated, and you owe me an apology.”
Williams also mentioned the seeming double-standard at play.
Speaking to officials who were summoned to arbitrate the matter, she said:
“There’s a lot of men out here that have said a lot of things and because they’re a man, that doesn’t happen to them.”
It is worth noting that throughout the incident, despite being visibly distressed by such serious accusations and high-stakes punishments, Williams not only used no profanity but barely raised her voice.
But that has not stopped media outlets from using words like “berate” and “outburst” to describe a reaction that was relatively calm given the circumstances and was in stark contrast to the sorts of interactions tennis fans are used to from male tennis stars.
And judging from social media reaction, the discrepancy has not gone unnoticed.
Many point to something other than just gender at play though. Tennis legend Martina Navratilova was known to argue with refs as well in a far more effusive manner than Williams. And while Navratilova received harsher judgment than McEnroe and Agassi, she also admits to be hot-headed early in her career and pushing boundaries.
Yet despite the lack of yelling or obscenities by Williams, the media pushed headlines like “Serena Williams tarnishes her legacy with abuse of US Open umpire.”
People are citing the damaging stereotype of the “angry Black woman.”
Some even showed up with receipts, sharing examples of infamous male tennis stars behaving far more belligerently and profanely than Williams, only to receive softer punishment and labels like “the bad boy of tennis.”
Even the sport’s most important female trailblazer chimed in.
Tennis legend Billie Jean King took to Twitter to defend Williams and call out the double standards that still persist in the sport.
Williams ended up losing the match to Naomi Osaka, who tearfully accepted her and Japan’s first US Open win, saying she wished the circumstances had been different.
“I know that everyone was cheering for her, and I’m sorry it had to end like this.”
For her part, Williams did all she could to support her opponent, by instructing the crowd to stop booing for her loss and support Naomi Osaka’s extraordinary and historic accomplishment.
And fans couldn’t help but be moved by her graciousness in the moment.
Williams remains a class act indeed.