Tennis players past and present have rallied behind Serena Williams after she claimed the sport was riddled by sexism following an extraordinary on-court tirade at an umpire during the US Open women's final.
The 23-time grand slam winner said she was fighting for the future rights of women players by publicly criticising the chair umpire Carlos Ramos for what she interpreted as double standards. The final was won by Naomi Osaka of Japan – with the enormously talented 20-year-old claiming her first major title – but it will be remembered for the controversy prompted by a furious outburst from Williams.
There were several flash points during the match that descended to its most unsavoury moment midway through the second set, when Ramos penalised Williams for receiving on-court coaching.
The 36-year-old, who was bidding for a seventh US Open title in New York, was clearly agitated. "I don't cheat to win. I'd rather lose. I'm just letting you know," she told him. At the next change of ends, Williams fumed, accusing Ramos of stealing a point from her. "I have a daughter and I stand for what's right for her," she said. "You will never be on another court of mine as long as you live. You stole a point from me. You're a thief." Ramos, who is known on the circuit for being officious and has previously been criticised for unfair treatment by the leading male players Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, deducted a game from the American.
The former world No 1 Billie Jean King, an outspoken advocate of women's rights, said Williams was entitled to draw attention to the "double standard" in tennis.
“When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalised for it,” When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ and there are no repercussions,” King tweeted.
The issue divided those watching but most of Williams's contemporaries noted their support. The multiple grand slam winner Victoria Azarenka said: "If it was a men's match, this wouldn't happen like this. It just wouldn't."
The American tennis journalist Richard Deitsch agreed it was sexism, claiming a man of Williams's professional stature would not have been subject to such stringent enforcement of the rules. He tweeted: "I covered 17 US Opens for Sports Illustrated. There is no way a men's player with Serena's resume (multiple Grand Slam titles, economic driver of the sport) is getting a third code violation for that language in the finals of a major. No way."
It is not the first time Williams has been involved in bad tempered exchanges with tennis officials. At the US Open in 2009 she was fined $10,500 for being abusive towards a lineswoman who called a foot fault against her.
Some spectators said the latest outburst was simply evidence of Williams being a bad loser, because she was trailing the match at the time. Richard Ings, a former Australian tennis administrator, wrote: "The umpire in this match did his job. Every violation was a correct call. Carlos Ramos shows courage and capability."
But Williams called on the example of a female player given a code violation for removing her shirt on court in the first round of this year’s US Open to illustrate her point about double standards. The French player Alizé Cornet was penalised for swiftly removing her shirt after realising she had put it on back-to-front following a break for the extreme heat in New York.
In her post-match press conference, Williams gave a considered evaluation. “I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things,” she said, “I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality. For me to say thief and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark.
“He’s never taken a game from a man because they said thief. For me, it blows my mind,” she added. “But I’m going to continue to fight for women and to fight for us to have equal rights. Like Cornet should be able to take off her shirt without getting a fine.”
Williams had dearly hoped for a glorious homecoming in New York, playing in the US Open for the first time since giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr, now one. But her comeback has been punctuated by rows about sexism in tennis. In the approach to the US Open she was told the French Open organisers would no longer permit her to wear the distinctive black catsuit she used at this year’s tournament. Williams wryly protested that ban by wearing an outlandish tutu at the US Open.
While the controversy proved divisive, most viewers were united in their distaste at how the crowd’s reaction soured the winning moment for Osaka, a mixed race Japanese American who has idolised Williams since she was a teenager. Williams put her arm around Osaka and urged the crowd to quieten after they had booed during the presentation ceremony. – Guardian service