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A tale of two umpires

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12th September, 2018
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Naomi Osaka won the US Open fair and square. That cannot be stated enough – and that statement does not need to be qualified.

She is the youngest woman to win the US Open since Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2004, and the only the second 20yo, man or woman, to win a Grand Slam tournament in the last ten years. This is an achievement that needs to be celebrated.

Unfortunately, this has been overshadowed by debates surrounding the behaviour of Serena Williams, and whether or not her treatment was the result of racism, sexism, or both.

This is of course a very important debate to have, and Williams has been leading this debate for her entire career. But this particular case does not appear to have racial or sexist overtones. The warning for coaching was harsh, but not unheard of, and the following two code violations would and have been given to players from all countries and of both sexes.

When I say that the coaching violation was harsh, I mean it. It was super harsh, and it would have been harsh on any player. But it was only harsh in hindsight due to the incidents that followed. At the time no one could’ve predicted what was to follow.

It’s important to state here that umpire Carlos Ramos was well within his rights to give the warning. In fact he would have been expected to. There is no doubt that Williams’ coach was at least attempting to coach her during the match, and that is forbidden under the rules. Umpire Ramos simply followed the rules.

Serena Williams loses the plot in staggering US Open Final tirade

Serena Williams takes on umpire Carlos Ramos

Earlier in the tournament, umpire Mohammed Layhani was condemned for his actions in encouraging Nick Kyrgios to play as he should, instead of moping around the court. Under the rules, Kyrgios could have received a Code Violation for not trying, and many saw Layhani’s actions as showing favouritism towards Kyrgios.

I had argued though that Layhani’s actions were the sensible course of action in the situation. However, the reaction of the tennis world and of administrators to Layhani’s intervention was not overall favourable, and in light of that, it would have been difficult therefore for any umpire to be less interventionist than Ramos was.

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Even if Layhani had not intervened in the way he did though, it’s unlikely that Ramos would have been less harsh on Williams. He has a history of being a very strict umpire to all players, and both Williams and her coach should have understood and appreciated that.

But, I would suggest, had umpire Ramos taken a more conciliatory approach to the original coaching incident, by giving an ‘unofficial’ first warning to either Williams or her coach, the entire controversy could have been avoided, or at least would not have been as controversial as it has become.

But the actions of officials earlier in the tournament, when they did not back Layhani’s actions meant that Ramos had no real alternative to the actions that he took.

Both Williams and Kyrgios are fiery players. On court, they can both have a short temper when dealing with umpires and other court officials. Whereas Layhani recognised this, and de-escalated a situation, the actions of Ramos – in line with the rules it must be said – inadvertently led to a situation which robbed Naomi Osaka of the full credit for her wonderful victory.

Ramos did nothing wrong, but Layhani did a lot right.