Serena Williams Stirred Up a Cheating Controversy at the U.S. Open

Her heated argument with the umpire cast a light on sexism in tennis.
September 10, 2018
4 mins read

An undeniable fact: Serena Williams is a powerhouse athlete. Williams, who will be turning 37 years old in a few weeks, is considered one of, if not the, greatest female tennis player of all time, with some even lauding her as the greatest athlete ever.

It’s not hard to see why — Williams, standing at 5’9”, frequently flaunts her visible muscles, and when she wins, she shows a beautiful smile that lights up the court.

Through her courtside success, Williams has fashioned herself a position as a well-known celebrity: She attends the Met Gala, she is friends with Anna Wintour and the Kardashians, and she even attended the Royal Wedding. She recently had a daughter with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. She has been awarded over $88 million in prize winnings and is ranked as the highest female tennis player of all-time.

This level of expertise is once-in-a-lifetime. Williams is known for being a kind person, but also one who is, some say, hotheaded. The U.S. Open has a pattern of being a sensitive tournament for Serena, where she first displayed her temper in 2009. After being penalized for a foot fault, she told the lineswoman in a profanity-laced argument that she was going shove a tennis ball down her throat.

In 2011, after being penalized for loudly shouting “Come on!” at her opponent, she told the umpire that she was “ugly on the inside” and that the umpire should “look the other way” if she saw Williams coming.

Though this behavior is not exactly kosher, it’s understandable. Serena Williams is someone who prides herself on being the best. She gets emotional when points are taken away from her. At this year’s U.S. Open, she and her coach Patrick Mouratoglou were accused of cheating by ways of “coaching,” which basically means being coached through hand gestures on the sidelines.

As history has shown us, Serena Williams does not like being penalized. After this weekend, however, I think it’s fair to say she likes being accused of cheating even less.

“I don’t cheat to win,” she said. “I’d rather lose.” Later in the match, after being penalized for throwing her racquet to the ground, she tearfully said: “I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter, and I stand for what is right, and I have never cheated, and you owe me an apology.”

Her impassioned words sent the crowd into cheers, and though Osaka eventually won the match, Williams is using the experience to highlight the penalty of coaching to the tennis community. Williams later claimed in a press conference that men are penalized for coaching less often than women. It’s difficult to substantiate these claims, but there are some clear lines.

John McEnroe, a tennis player who is also highly decorated, is well known for his frequent court-side meltdowns, which frequently went unpenalized. And while Williams’ coach did verify that he was coaching (though he also said that she wasn’t looking at him), he also brought up that coaching is extremely common — he’s right in his claims that almost everyone does it, and no one gets penalized.

It’s a difficult position for Williams, but she knows how to handle it. She knows how to smile her dazzling smile in the face of controversy. Serena Williams is a target for many reasons: She is a woman, she is black and she is simply the best.

Katie Sheets, University of Vermont

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Katie Sheets

University of Vermont

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