Career lessons from the US Open’s heated women’s final

On Saturday, the anticipated U.S. Open’s championship match between 20-year-old Naomi Osaka of Japan and Serena Williams, who was seeking her 24th Grand Slam singles title, became remembered not for Osaka’s first tennis Grand Slam singles win, but for what happened on the sidelines.

During the second set of the match that she was losing, Williams was handed three penalties by umpire Carlos Ramos that ultimately resulted in a $17,000 fine and a loss of a game. First, Williams was given a warning for receiving illegal help from her coach in the stands, help that coach Patrick Mouratoglou later acknowledged he was trying to do, but said Williams had not see him do. Williams has never gotten a coaching violation in her career and refuted that she had been cheating.

The argument escalated when Williams received a point penalty for breaking her racquet in frustration. But it was the suggestion that she was a cheater that Williams later returned to arguing with Ramos over. Tennis players’ income and reputation depend on their ability to be seen as fair and honest. The coaching violation sparked a heated reaction from Williams as she knew her reputation was on the line. “It’s wrong. You’re attacking my character. Yes, you are,” Williams told Ramos, calling him a “thief” who stole a point from her, for which she was docked a whole game on account of “verbal abuse.”

The game had not just become about a tennis match, but a larger question on Williams’ character and who can express anger in the workplace.

Double standard of Williams’ penalty resonates

For tennis fans watching the match, the severity of the penalties did not fit what had actually happened. To them, the inconsistent application of tennis rules was a sexist double standard that they had witnessed in their own workplaces. Billie Jean King, winner of 12 Grand Slam titles of her own and one of the founders of the WTA Tour, said on Twitter: “When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ and there are no repercussions.” Writing for USA TODAY, Christine Brennan noted that however you feel about Williams’ outburst, male tennis players like John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors were known for saying worse than a “thief” to an umpire without getting a penalty.

As James Blake, the former top-ranked American tennis player, put it: “I will admit I have said worse and not gotten penalized. And I’ve also been given a ‘soft warning’ by the ump where they tell you knock it off or I will have to give you a violation. He should have at least given her that courtesy.” Retired tennis player Andy Roddick corroborated this double standard, saying: “I’ve regrettably said worse and I’ve never gotten a game penalty.”

Tennis institutions came out in favor of both the umpire and Williams. The International Tennis Federation defended Ramos as a man of “professionalism and integrity,” while the governing body of women’s tennis, the Women’s Tennis Association, backed Williams.

But Williams outcry of unfairness is sparking reform for rules, showing that speaking up in the moment can feel like a loss when it happens but turn into a win for the long-run. “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 wants to be a strong woman,” Williams said after the match. “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.”

“Some of these incidents, you know, have prompted us to reflect on the clarity of our own communication to the chair umps,” Chris Widmaier, spokesman for tennis’ governing body, the United States Tennis Association, told the Associated Press. “These incidents will prompt us to analyze ways of perhaps instituting some change. We certainly do not want inconsistencies.”

How to keep going in defeat

What gets overshadowed in Williams’ story is Osaka’s win, a huge win for a young player that could be the future of the sport. Osaka’s day of triumph for beating her childhood idol had soured into a tragedy for both players. Seeing Osaka’s visible sadness in the trophy ceremony, Williams made the call to make the lasting moment about the respect both had for the sport. When Williams was arguing with Ramos, she told him that, “I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her.” She said that she was thinking of her personal future in that moment, and when she asked for Osaka to receive public respect in her victory ceremony, she was was thinking of her sport’s future.

Telling the crowd that this was Osaka’s first Grand Slam win, she asked the crowd to stop jeering. “Let’s make this the best moment we can, and we’ll get through it,” she said. “Let’s give everyone the credit where credit’s due. Let’s not boo anymore. We’re gonna get through this, and let’s be positive. So congratulations, Naomi! No more booing.”

By putting the spotlight back on Osaka, she was giving Osaka the acknowledgement and respect that she herself said she had not received, modeling how to pick yourself back up and keep going after a defeat. When you are discouraged and angry by a professional setback, you can cheer yourself by focusing on the long game of legacy and ask yourself: how can I improve the careers of the people that come after me, so that this institution can survive long after I am gone?