Serena’s loss: By the rules, or an umpire’s rigidity?

Serena’s loss: By the rules, or an umpire’s rigidity?

Serena Williams was robbed. Not by sexism or racism — although she and her sister Venus have endured plenty of both during their careers — but by an umpire’s incompetence in interpreting the rules. To employ Hanlon’s razor, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

First, let’s get the two “isms” out of the way. Tennis great Billie Jean King and others have alleged that Serena was treated differently because she is a woman: “Women are treated differently in most arenas of life. This is especially true for women of color. … Ultimately, a woman was penalized for standing up for herself,” King wrote in a Washington Post commentary. King claims the “ceiling that women of color face on their path to leadership never felt more impenetrable than it did at the women’s U.S. Open final,” and that “people in positions of power …[abused] power.”  Though Williams called umpire Carlos Ramos a “thief” and a “liar,” other players have said far worse, with different results.


Amidst the hubbub, an Australian newspaper has reprinted its cartoon that spawned accusations of racism; people including author J.K. Rowling have condemned the treatment meted out to Williams both during the U.S. Open final and afterward.

The problem is, there is no evidence to establish either racism or sexism. And the race and gender focus misses what actually happened to Serena: She was robbed by a boorish umpire who grossly erred in applying the rules.

Ramos apparently spotted Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, making hand gestures and assessed a coaching penalty. Shortly after, Serena smashed her racquet and he awarded a point penalty under the Grand Slam Tournament Regulations, which provide that “players shall not violently or with anger hit, kick or throw a racquet or other equipment within the precincts of the tournament site.”

If events had stopped there, the Open may have ended differently. But Serena lashed out at Ramos, calling him a thief, and he assessed a third violation, issuing a game penalty.

Did Ramos act correctly? The code states, “Players shall not at any time directly or indirectly verbally abuse any official, opponent, sponsor, spectator or other person within the precincts of the tournament site.” But Serena’s “thief” label must be considered in context — she did not utter it to imply that Ramos is dishonest. She accused him of causing a loss: “You stole a point from me.” In context, this may be interpreted as a rhetorical excess, rather than as abuse.

To be fair to Ramos, the International Tennis Federation has defended his application of the rules. Serena also did say, “You are a liar. You will never be on a court of mine as long as you live. When are you going to give me my apology? Say you are sorry.” The words look harsh in print, but in context, they seemed more like whining than abuse.

Let’s examine Ramos’s conclusions, beginning with the penalty for coaching. The rules state that “communications of any kind, audible or visible, between a player and a coach may be construed as coaching.” Yet it’s not clear that this standard was met. Some argue that Mouratoglou admitted to coaching, but even if that was his intent, under the rules Ramos must be satisfied that there was a “communication” between Serena and her coach. A coach could shout and make gestures, but if the player cannot see or hear these, a plain reading of the rule does not appear to warrant a penalty. The relevant definition for “communication” in this context may be the Oxford Dictionary’s: “The successful conveying or sharing of ideas and feelings.”

In this case, Serena did not appear to have seen or comprehended the gesture and there was no exchange, no “successful conveying.” It was merely one party making a gesture — a relatively harmless and trivial gesture that was obviously of low “coaching” significance. Further, if Ramos thought the coaching was egregious, he could have evicted Mouratoglou from the Open; there was no need to assess this violation.

Aside from semantics, Ramos’s application of the rules defeats their purpose. As the regulations explain, the purpose of the rules is to provide “fair and reasonable rules for the orderly conduct and operation of the four Grand Slam Tournaments in as uniform a manner as possible.” Ramos’s penalties were neither fair nor reasonable. Even more importantly, they were not uniform — as many have pointed out, the coaching rule has been applied inconsistently and often arbitrarily.

Ramos also erred by adopting an unnecessarily harsh interpretation that directly influenced the result. Imagine if the score had been 5-3 before he awarded the game penalty. Upon his view of things, Ramos — and not the players — would have determined the winner of the 2018 Open. That defeats the purpose the regulations and is not fair or reasonable to the spectators or the players. Crucially, it transgresses the role of the umpire. And if a mechanical interpretation of the rules was intended, why have an umpire? A robot would be cheaper. A human umpire's job is to exercise judgment within the broader context.

It is not clear why the referee did not step in to correct Ramos’s errors. Under the code, the referee is the “final on-site authority for the interpretation” of the rules, with the power to “remove a chair umpire … whenever he decides it is necessary to improve the officiating of a match.” The referee could have tossed Ramos, or could have acted as the arbiter (as the code provides) on any question of tennis law, including whether coaching or abuse occurred.

With 39 major titles, Serena Williams holds the most Grand Slam titles among active players. The World Tennis Association ranked her No. 1 in singles eight times. And since her professional debut in 1995, she has endured much racism and sexism in her career. But in this instance, she and the public were defeated by a lesser foe: incompetence.

Sandeep Gopalan is a professor of law and pro vice chancellor for academic innovation at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. He previously was co-chairman or vice chairman of American Bar Association committees on aerospace/defense and international transactions, a member of the ABA’s immigration commission, and dean of three law schools in Ireland and Australia. He has taught law in four countries and served as a visiting scholar at universities in France and Germany.