The U.S. Open’s women’s singles final was supposed to be Naomi Osaka’s shining moment. At only 20-years-old, she earned the opportunity to play against Serena Williams, someone she views as her idol, for one of the most prestigious tennis titles. She should have been basking in her accomplishments. Instead, she had to stand on stage, teary-eyed, to accept her trophy while the entire crowd booed her for something beyond her control.
I must have scrolled through hundreds of angry comments that afternoon, and I could see pieces of my own emotions in every single one of them. Of course, I was upset that Williams had been accused of cheating and received a game-ending penalty for verbalizing her anger, but I was also livid that Osaka had to apologize for her very first championship win. Hearing the words “I’m sorry that it had to end like this” felt like a loss. Watching her cover her face and cry on national television felt like a loss.
Sitting here, several days later, I feel no different. It still feels like a loss to me. I had to watch two black women be robbed of everything that they worked so hard for, and as painful as it was, it didn’t surprise me.
These images are notably cemented in my memory, not only because the event was so disappointing, but because it was yet another reminder that black women are not welcome in many spaces if they don’t adhere to everyone else’s expectations.
Maybe Williams shouldn’t have called the umpire, Carlos Ramos, a thief or a liar, and maybe she shouldn’t have broken her racket, but we should still acknowledge the systems of power that have allowed many men before her to say and do worse without losing a title.
Correspondingly, Billie Jean King, the founder of the Women’s Tennis Association, wrote the following in The Washington Post: “Did Ramos treat Williams differently than male players have been treated? I think he did. Women are treated differently in most arenas of life. This is especially true for women of color. And what played out on the court yesterday happens far too often.”
To be clear, my agreement with this statement is not saying that Ramos’s rulings were incorrect – I know that he was following tennis codes. However, even the CEO of the U.S. Tennis Association, Katrina Adams, recognized that there has always been a double standard at play. In an interview with “CBS This Morning,” she claimed that male umpires often have warning conversations with male players and may not understand how they can have those same conversations with women.
“We shouldn’t have to carry that extra weight on our back in anything that we do,” she said, and she wasn’t wrong. There is no reason why men shouldn’t be able to speak to women with the same respect they give other men. Ramos could have used his discretion to warn Williams and make the game as fair as possible rather than letting his frustrations with her make the game, but he didn’t, and today we’re all witnessing the aftermath.
The U.S. Open ended with two black women in tears, and the controversy has made this situation polarizing; supporting Osaka is easily misunderstood as opposing Williams, while defending Williams is immediately viewed as disliking or discrediting Osaka. The issue isn’t clean cut – it’s messy, it’s discouraging and it’s harmful, especially for black women looking on.
Since that match ended, I have had to scroll past what feels like a million racist comments and negative think pieces, and to make matters worse, I could predict what they all said.
Unsurprisingly, many people painted Williams as this “angry black woman,” a stereotype that has invalidated and silenced our pain for decades. That outlook prevents anyone from seeing our outbursts as warranted under the assumption that we’re upset just because we can be, and it habitually provides space for blatantly disrespectful content, such as Australian cartoonist Mark Knight’s animalistic caricature of Williams and the New York Post’s infamous “Serena has mother of all meltdowns” headline and photo combination.
After several attacks on her character, both in that match and outside of it, Williams finally stood up for herself, and we should be okay with that.
She, as well as other black women, should have the room to be angry without being ridiculed.
Osaka should be able to celebrate her win without being overshadowed by the press.
At some point, it becomes our responsibility to remember that both of those women are human and that this chaos will affect them.
I’m asking that we allow this event to become a teaching moment for everyone, particularly those who don’t understand what it’s like to exist in this body as a black woman.
“The fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and that wants to express themselves and they want to be a strong woman,” Williams said in the U.S. Open’s press conference. “And they’re going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.”
I really hope she’s right.