Serena Williams is a phenomenal tennis player, and undisputedly one of the best in the game. There are those who would even argue that she is the greatest female athlete of all time.
Unfortunately it was not her athletic performance that captured the world’s attention in the recent US Open. Instead, it was her complaints about sexist officiating during the women’s final that set off a fierce public debate about whether she was unfairly penalised on the court because she is a woman.
Let’s be clear, women’s tennis is still far from being on par with men’s. Although men and women earn the same prize money at Grand Slam tournaments, this isn’t the case in lower tier events, and there’s a wide pay gap overall.
Researchers investigating gender inequity in the sport for several decades have found that the media’s coverage of female players and their matches has also contributed. The effect over many years has been a reinforcement of the notion of women’s tennis as an inferior and less marketable product.
So was Serena justified in her actions on the court, actions she claimed were speaking out against sexism in tennis?
I think not. I applaud the previous work she’s done in advancing gender equity in a sport that has long been mired in accusations of sexism, marginalisation and overt gender bias. But her actions did not highlight issues of gender inequity in the best way.
Her conduct during, and after the US Open women’s final marred what should have been her opponent Naomi Osaka’s fairy tale night.
Instead of heralding the arrival of a young and deserving talent, this match will probably be remembered for Williams calling the umpire a “sexist liar” and a “thief”, and later saying her complaints were made for the equal rights of all women.
On closer inspection, the umpire in question has been willing to enforce the rules by the book with the game’s biggest stars, male and female. While some may not want to acknowledge it, the difference is that the men didn’t belabour their arguments with him.
Undeniably, there are some very real issues of gender equality in tennis and understandably female players are sick of the double standards and snide comments, as they should be.
But decisions made by the umpire during the 2018 US Open final shouldn’t be included in this list of injustices.
Dr Ashleigh-Jane Thompson is a lecturer and academic at the Centre for Sport and Social Impact at La Trobe University.