AN ATHLETE UNDER FIRE

Farzana Suri, Victory Coach 

The 2018 US Open has caught the headlines, in every media across the world. The finals between Serena Williams, by far one of best athletes the world has seen. The winner of 23 singles Grand Slam titles – a record unbeaten by any other player – male or female in the world of tennis. And, 20-year-old, Naomi Osaka of Japan who entered the 2018 season ranking 68, and winning her very first Grand Slam.

Naomi beat Serena in straight sets, making her the first Japanese player to win the Grand title. Ground-breaking news, you’d say. The post-match headlines however, found Naomi Osaka’s win overshadowed by the meltdown of her opponent. The incident in question involved Chair Umpire, Carlos Ramos of high repute in his 27-year long career and Serena Williams. Ramos issued three violations against Serena.

The first was a violation on coaching where he accused her of receiving illegal coaching from her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. Serena denied it and there was an exchange of words.

Serena, then lost a point due to the second violation when she smashed her racket in frustration, and called the umpire a “thief,” leading to an automatic game loss for ‘verbal abuse’.

She accused the umpire of being ‘sexist’ in her post match press conversation.

There has been considerable backlash and support being voiced online in the reports following the match for Ramos and Serena.

Was Serena treated, unfairly?

The game of tennis, like any individual sport requires considerable mental toughness throughout an athlete’s career. There is the pressure of failure, criticism, burnout, injuries and silly errors. And, added to that is the scrutiny of spectators from the stands and audiences watching televised matches, worldwide.

Let’s get some perspective, here. Serena’s journey in tennis has not been easy.  Her early days began in a violent neighbourhood of Compton, LA where gunfights were ‘normal’. She was trained by her dad and she entered her first tennis tournament at the age of five. While most her age enjoyed their kindergarten and primary school life, Serena was training hard. She is known to have won forty-six of the next forty-nine tournaments she entered within five years, according to sources quoting her dad. Her grit, determination, conviction and sheer hardwork have made her unstoppable notwithstanding the innumerable injuries and her recent pregnancy.

An athlete’s performance is not just the sum of play on the day in court. It’s the belief they carry when they walk into the court. The mental state and inner world of a player has a lot to do with their performance. And, then whatever unfolds while playing – the opponent, the crowd, the calls embed that belief.

While I am no expert on tennis, in my view as a coach, there are two aspects that may have triggered Serena to cave, emotionally under pressure.

  1. The questioning of her ethics:

When someone questions your ethics, it suggests you have little or no integrity and the words hurt deep and cause pain. With Serena, it was no different.

Picture yourself in her shoes. It is your comeback game. You’ve won 23 titles and this is your chance to score your 24th. When you are accused of malfeasance, it feels like an attack. Straddled with the perceived threat and the apparent attack on your integrity, your adrenaline pumps faster. You begin thinking from the most basic part of your brain, and find yourself in the throes of a shouting match or act of violence.

So, what instigated Serena?

Coaching is prohibited at the Grand Slam tennis. Interestingly, while it is allowed in women’s tennis during the regular season, Serena and her sister have always refused to see their coach during matches.

In the case of Serena, while her coach was gesturing, and it wasn’t clear whether she could see his gesticulations. Moreover, most coaches, including her own opponent’s, coached from the box; and it went unnoticed.

When you are at the receiving end of an accusation, it acts as an emotional accelerator. You want to hit back and get even. The code violations were unfair, in Serena’s view and that incited her to call Ramos a ‘thief’ and ‘liar’ when she lost a point. Sadly, the ‘wrongfulness’ and ‘judgment’ by Ramos stayed with her. She lost her mental toughness and it resulted in her below par performance.

  1. Erratic rule enforcement:

Players, especially the men have been allowed to get away with way more. And, regretfully the authorities have displayed leniency. Tennis has had its fair share of temper tantrums and emotional outbursts. Who doesn’t remember the legendary meltdowns and tirades of Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Ilie Nastase and Dmitry Tursunov?

While racket abuse is an automatic code violation, not everyone who has flung their racket has been penalised.  Djokovic has submitted that during the 2018 Wimbledon quarterfinal, he and his opponent both threw their rackets, however only Djokovic received a violation.

Andy Roddick’s tweet is self-explanatory, “I’ve regrettably said worse and I’ve never gotten a game penalty.” The rules seem to bend based on the individual on the chair.

One cannot discount Serena’s behaviour just because there are the few who are allowed to go scot free. I agree and she did pay the price.

Could Serena have handled the situation better? Yes, of course.

  • She had the option to detach herself and not ingest the ‘attack’ or taken things, personally.
  • She could have developed agency by connecting her values to her act and focussed on raising her game.
  • She could have exercised more emotional restraint.

But when the stakes are high and emotions heightened, all attempts at rational thinking fly out of the window, quicker than the peregrine falcon.

In Serena’s defence, she has endured a lot in her career spanning two decades; as a black, female tennis player from the humble and depressing ghettoes of Compton to dominating the elite, country club sport, she has ruffled quite a few feathers in the social hierarchy, along the way. She has deflected racial abuse and sexist remarks from members of her own tennis fraternity while the Federations have done little in her fight for justice on the turf.

She stands victorious, a champion. Serena Williams. Winner of 23 Grand Slam titles, 4 Olympic gold medals, recipient of the Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year award, not once but three times!

In an interview to a US magazine, Serena has quoted, “If I were a man, I’d have been considered the greatest a long time ago.”

You can question her behaviour at the recent tournament but in all fairness can you overlook her achievements? Is standing up for something you feel is unfair, wrong? How many things can you let slide to be the epitome of ‘perfection’?

These are questions for you to answer.

Farzana Suri is a Victory Coach and coaches you on life, relationships, business and career.  She can be reached on mail@farzanasuri.comor www.farzanasuri.com