Serena Williams’ meltdown shows tennis is at a crossroads
Leading players must take responsibility for guiding sport during this period of change
“When the finest player the game has seen behaves like a diva, it is not wrong to remind her that champions have responsibilities.” Above: US Open women’s singles champion Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams. Photograph: Getty Images
Many fine things happened at the 50th US Open, none better than Naomi Osaka’s dignified arrival and Novak Djokovic’s mighty return, none worse than Serena Williams’s meltdown. Nevertheless the sport overall is in rude health on court, even if some of the people who run it would struggle to get a start organising lifeboats on the Titanic.
There were many surreal moments at Flushing Meadows – as there invariably are in this crazy business – from the way umpire Mohamed Lahyani got down from his chair to comfort Nick Kyrgios in full tank mode to the composure of his colleague, Carlos Ramos, who played it straight and refused to accommodate the illogical rant of Williams in the women’s final and then was subjected to the equally odd ire of officials more concerned with appeasing their star player than supporting a fine umpire for doing his job.
The United States Tennis Association said Lahyani went “beyond protocol”, while the Women’s Tennis Association admonished Ramos for sticking to the rules, handing down its judgment at the very moment Djokovic celebrated his win over Juan Martín del Potro in the men’s final. But we move on.
Over the next few weeks Chris Kermode, the chief executive of the Association of Tennis Professionals, will try to nudge the International Tennis Federation towards a sensible route back to sanity over the Davis Cup. He has the ear of the players, whom the ITF has all but ignored in its ill-advised plans to move the final to November (when players grab a rare rest from the grind of the Tour) in a format meant to ape football’s World Cup. Good luck with that.
Leon Smith, the captain of Great Britain’s Davis Cup team, who entertain Uzbekistan in Glasgow this week, made the sound observation that asking players to play back-to-back five-setters is at the heart of the competition’s enduring problem. Nobody loves the Davis Cup more than Smith. The ITF should listen to him and others voicing similar concerns.
The millionaire backers of this enterprise, with the Barcelona centre-back Gerard Piqué as front man, have pledged $3 billion (€2.59 billion) over 25 years to save the competition. It sounds suspiciously like a Boris Johnson promise on the side of a bus.
Similarly Roger Federer’s Laver Cup, which moves to Chicago after a promising if expensive debut in his home town of Basel, has yet to establish the basic criteria of any sporting endeavour: credibility as a contest. Does anyone care who wins it? If it does not establish itself as a genuine sporting contest – as opposed to a star-studded exhibition – it will not last more than a few years, much as the International Premier Tennis League collapsed in 2017 after three years. A lot of rich players got richer; not many people cared.
Ultimately the sport is about the players. It is their responsibility and privilege to carry the sport through stormy waters and sunnier days. Too often they are distracted by some of these schemes, simultaneously complaining of burnout and cashing in by playing even more – and meaningless – tennis.
Wonderful player as Djokovic is, he sometimes struggles to avoid coming across as Jesus Christ. “Roaring for my sport,” he tweeted after winning his third US Open on Sunday night, and his 14th major, “my wife and kids, my whole family, my people. Love to everyone. It feels good to be back.”
And who could begrudge him? He has won two majors since his elbow surgery at the start of the year and might yet finish the year at number one in the world.
Djokovic underlined the stark fact that the next generation are not yet ready to replace him and the other members of the Big Four – although Andy Murray is still working his way back towards membership of sport’s most exclusive club.
It would be fitting if Murray, Djokovic, Federer and Rafael Nadal ended their careers together at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Murray has his two gold medals to defend, Federer needs one to round a complete set of titles, Djokovic is likely to be still “roaring” and Nadal will not want to go before the others, however strong the call of golf and fishing in his Mallorcan paradise.
Osaka will be there, too, hopefully – back in the country where she was born. She is a remarkable player and person: funny, wise beyond her 20 years and talented. She would not say a bad word about Williams, who almost spoiled her night in Saturday’s final, because she adores her. There is so much to admire about Williams as well, even if she let animus swamp her in defeat.
When the finest player the game has seen behaves like a diva, it is not wrong to remind her that champions have responsibilities. She is much better than that. And she is not bigger than her sport. Nobody is – including those who sit in judgment.