sports psychologist & clinical psychology

Serena Williams Can Fix this Whole Mess with a Sincere Apology

Special Feature to JohnFMurray.com – September 12, 2018 – Palm Beach, Florida – Unless you live under a rock, jumped off the grid, or relocated to the moon, you’ve probably seen or heard about the controversy at this year’s US Open Women’s Finals between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. The facts of this incident are clear and undisputed. What is not so clear-cut is the interpretation of Serena’s behavior and how millions of people have processed it. As an ex-tennis professional, clinical and sports psychologist who has worked with many pro tennis players, Tennis Magazine columnist and author of two tennis books, it’s about time I chime in.

Serena was gunning to tie Margaret Court for most major titles in history. It meant something special to one of the greatest ever. Nineteen years earlier I was heading to New York City to conduct a tennis psychology workshop on the same plane with Serena Williams. She was attempting to win her first major title at the 1999 US Open so I presented her copy of my newly released book “Smart Tennis: How to Play and Win the Mental Game,” and called the book her new secret weapon. Whether she read the book or not, Serena upset world number one Martina Hingis 6-3, 7-6 for her first major, and I was thrilled.

To say that I’ve not admired Serena over the years is a lie. She even owns part of my favorite NFL team, the Miami Dolphins. In working to inspire tennis players I’ve extolled Serena’s aggressive style of play and raved about how she reduced match pressure under the guidance of her father Richard Williams. He did not allow his daughters to play the usual junior circuits, a controversial move that is now applauded. I chatted with Richard Williams about this at the US Open and was impressed that he was thinking about his daughters’ tennis careers, but also about their education and life after tennis too. In my many hundreds of tennis player mental coaching evaluations, I ask my clients to identify their most admired athletes. Serena’s name often shows up near the top. Naomi Osaka was also apparently a big Serena Williams fan, and that is part of what is so bittersweet and sad about this most recent US Open.

Let’s briefly review the facts. Serena had lost the first set 6-2 after which her coach was caught cheating by giving her advice during the match. Serena got a code violation from chair umpire Carlos Ramos and Serena’s coach later fully admitted to this indiscretion. Serena smashed a racket and got a second code violation. Again, totally justified. Finally, Serena attacked Ramos verbally and shouted that he was a liar and a thief which elicited a third code violation which lost her a game, and she later lost the match.

Serena explained that for her to say Ramos was a thief must have meant that it was a sexist move by Ramos and that she was a hero fighting for women’s rights who would only want to set a good example for her daughter. Lost in all this focus on Serena and her behavior was the absolutely remarkable play of Naomi Osaka. Her moment in the sun had been forever stolen. I also fail to see the logic in considering one’s own egregious and inappropriate behavior as the justification for calling another person a sexist. I also have a daughter and cannot see how that fact makes one more correct. I took a great logic class in college from a Jesuit professor and just don’t remember this as one of the unassailable rules of logic along with modus ponens and modus tollens.

Soon after this match was over, millions both inside and outside of tennis began lining up on one side or the other. Most seemed to say that Serena is just an egotistical selfish baby who cheated, realized that she was losing, and made one last despicable attempt to flip the match by distracting her opponent. They argue that she insulted the world and made a disgraceful showing in front of millions of impressionable children, brought dishonor to herself and her sport, and destroyed Naomi’s moment in the sun. They also point to past horror shows by Serena when in 2009 she threatened to “shove a ball down an umpire’s f’ing throat” and was only fined $10,000, or when she verbally threatened a linesman in 2014. Australian cartoonist Mark Knight went so far as to draw Serena as an irate, hulking, big mouthed black woman jumping up and down on a broken racket with a pacifier nearby, while the umpire is shown telling a blonde, slender woman – meant to be Osaka who is actually Japanese and Haitian – “Can you just let her win?”

On the other side of the spectrum of opinion are Serena apologists who agree with her claims of sexism and racism, raise her up as a true champion and a promoter of minority rights, and point out past instances where male tennis players engaged in even ruder tantrums and were not punished. Another angle expressed is that Serena, like many black women, have to always be careful about not over-reacting at the risk of being called “an angry black woman.” They applaud Serena for standing up for herself and for women’s rights. The argument goes that if you are upset about something you should be able to express it loudly and clearly, especially if there is unfairness, racism, sexism or bigotry involved. Toni Van Pelt of the National Organization for Woman would say: “In what was a blatantly racist and sexist move, tennis umpire Carlos Ramos unfairly penalized Serena Williams in an abhorrent display of male dominance and discrimination.”

Where do I even begin with this? Do you realize how difficult it is to be a clinical and sports psychologist who is supposed to have an opinion now and is faced with so deeply different perspectives on the exact same moment in sport history? While I disagree with and am disappointed by how far Mark Knight went in his obviously aggressive and totally inappropriate cartoon, I also find it very hard to find any justification for what Serena did, consider it a selfish and irresponsible fall from grace, and very much believe she owes many people an apology, especially Naomi Osaka.

I started this article saying how much I admire Serena and I still do in many ways. She is a phenomenal champion and one of the greatest of all time. Her legacy has a chance to match the awesomeness of Ali. However, despite her greatness as a player and as an advocate for minority rights and other movements, I cannot help being disturbed about what I witnessed in that US Open final and also about what I find disturbing in our society today in how everyone looks for excuses when there are none.

Martina Navratilova was also one of the greatest, if not greatest, player of all time, and she is on record saying that what Ramos did was correct. It also makes no sense that because John McEnroe or other male players abused umpires and linesmen in the past that this somehow makes future cheating or inappropriate displays acceptable. The tennis world was also very different back then and allowed that kind of behavior much more than they do now. Using that same logic, Adolf Hitler’s behavior would justify the cruel mass killings of future tyrannical despots after him.

Past Australia Open champion Johan Kriek also points to what he calls a “reality check” and references “facts on Serena’s claim of gender bias against women in tennis” with the following recent report from the International Tennis Federation:

“During the three previous Grand Slams — the French Open, Wimbledon and Australian Open — men were assessed 59 code violations, almost twice as many as the women. The men were issued violations for coaching nine times and the most common violation was abuse of racket/equipment 19 times. Yes, there is a gender bias in tennis……and it’s against the men.” Kriek goes on to ask the reader to review Serena’s claims:

-The men say much worse and never get penalized. “Wrong”
-Everybody coaches and no one ever gets penalized for it. “Wrong “
-You’re doing this just because I’m a woman. “Wrong”
-This is not fair to me. “Wrong”

In my many years of playing, coaching and watching tennis I have rarely seen an issue that has so riled and divided the masses. In many ways, this conflict is a reflection of the current bipolar nature of American politics. While we must always be on guard for racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry and discrimination (and people who know me well know that I do not have a racist bone in my body) I also believe very strongly that victim politics is quite wrong and only further enslaves the minority party. To excuse grossly inappropriate behavior like we witnessed with Serena at the 2018 US Open because of race or gender is simply twisted. What does it do for Serena’s own personal development? Nothing. What does it do in teaching our children? Damage. We cannot allow that in society.

Being a member of a minority party that has been or is unfairly treated does not give anyone a right to abuse others or act out. Naomi Osaka is a minority herself, and nobody is talking about her rights and how they were violated. But even if Naomi had been lily white, there is no room for that kind of behavior by men or women, white, black or purple. By taking refuge and shelter behind a shield of identity politics has the unwitting effect of actually making the victim even weaker and less responsible in the future. Until people are treated equally based upon their actual behavior now, they will not receive the proper social and economic consequences that are natural and that help them grow. People in the future will simply look for future excuses and justifications to do the wrong thing, and making an apology or admitting to being wrong gets lost.

I cannot claim to be black or a woman. But as a straight male, of Christian background, who went through a very liberal doctoral program in psychology at a major state university, I experienced discrimination directly like I never had before. Had I been a Jewish, black, gay woman, I would have fit in perfectly. As a typical All-American type of guy who loved sports, I stuck out like a sore thumb in a clinical psychology program! How did I cope? I put my head down, worked my tail off, got to my meetings 10 minutes earlier than everyone else, and fought for years to win over the faculty until they eventually let me escape with a PhD. It was not easy but I also learned directly how it feels to be discriminated against. Had I instead been protected and shielded and coddled and nurtured for my being a part of a compromised minority group (funny, because I was the true minority in this program!) I might have gone around life looking for a future excuse everywhere I went. I’m not sure I would have had as good an education as I needed and I might have emerged with a chip on my shoulder looking to constantly find how I was being abused even when I did wrong.

The bottom line is that Serena will always be a champion and she has a right to make mistakes like all of us, but I truly believe that her legacy will be best preserved if she apologizes. She cannot be expected to be perfect. She was emotionally involved in the moment, wanted this record for wins very much, probably does have some issues with unfairness and rights, all of that and more, but she simply let her emotions get the best of her in a major way. To claim that it was all a part of her leadership for women’s rights, or for racial equality, is irresponsible, illogical, wrong, and should be rejected.

Let’s end this article by focusing on Naomi Osaka. What a remarkable performance by a young champion and what a terrific display of sportsmanship when faced with this mixed feelings debacle! I hope she wins a ton of major titles. She could have easily claimed that she was the victim in all of this but she chose to stay humble in her victory. You have to love that kind of person and I do hope she gets a sincere apology from another great champion, Serena Williams.

John F. Murray, PhD

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4 Responses to “Serena Williams Can Fix this Whole Mess with a Sincere Apology”

  1. admin says:

    Thanks for all your comments so far!

  2. Andrew G Weiss says:

    You summed up the situation perfectly. The questions about a double standard and sexism must be addressed, but her actions warranted code penalties. Serena got caught up in the moment. Yes, it can be argued that Carlos Ramos could have handled the coaching and verbal abuse issues differently. However, the Code of Conduct was violated and he did follow the Code. He had no obligation to give a soft warning for coaching or let Serena call him a liar and a thief just because male players have been more demonstrative before being penalized. Carlos Ramos is a strict adherent to the Code, etc. Another official might have handled the situation differently, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong and Serena is without fault.

  3. Sharon Petro says:

    John,

    Excellent account of this event. Thanks for posting.

    Sharon

  4. Loved this piece of lucid, balanced journalism.

    My observations as a lifelong tennis fan and critic.

    Kriek: Correct

    Serena:

    Emotional, bad behavior this time. Anger is normally based in fear and shortcomings. A busy mom, aging body and mind, losing her top dominance–boom, explosion and projection… no excuse for that. A lame way to behave in any tournament, especially the U.S. Open.

    Chris Evert and Martina never did this to my memory. They go down as class acts. I’m sure they wanted to strangle others at times in their careers but they kept their yaps closed. A good way to travel.

    Serena goes down as a class act with consistent expressions of poor, explosive, ungrateful, semi-entitlement behavior. I say entitlement because once she became the biggest, strongest, most dominant modern female athlete in modern history, she seems to have felt entitled to continue her wins and dominance. Not possible–at least not without eternal sacrifices.

    Borg, the eternal sacrificer, had to work for a living and had to fight for most of his wins, numbers of which took over 4 hours. What were Serena’s average matches over her 20-year run? Two sets, less than two hours? Please share if you know the stats.

    Still, Borg blew town (and the tennis world) in July 1982 after 6 years at the top.

    Borg couldn’t take it any more. See the Johnny Carson interview of 1982 where he talks about life on tour. Travel and pressure. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HemfPjsvJpE

    Borg knew that Mac had changed the game with Lendl, Willander, Connors, and others poised to take over. Borg retired at a good time for Borg. Mac was flummoxed at this. Mac couldn’t believe it and asked Borg for the next few years, “When are you coming back?”

    These Times:

    2018 is different than the 1980s of McEnroe. Tennis needed McEnroe as much as Mac needed tennis. Mac saved tennis, Lendl did not. Lendl was an exceptional robotic player. Mac was the Michelango-Mozart-Bruce Lee of the sport that bordered on doldrums (Willander, Edberg, Sampras, etc. semi-robotic, exceptional athletes yet semi-dullards compared to Mac).

    Serena did not completely change tennis on her own, other power players were prevalent in her times. Her sister Venus had already started the power changes. Other females were as fun or perhaps even more fun to watch. Sanchez Vacario, Capriati, Venus, Hingis, Henin, and others were as captivating and had more of a fun emotional component.

    Serena’s emotional depth rarely seemed “fun” to me. If you scroll back through her career, her walk and attitude even seemed a bit arrogant and prideful. You certainly wouldn’t easily summarize her personality with the use of the words “sweet, soft, humble,” especially when you look at her countenance, and many of her statements, and interviews. Perhaps she always felt slighted in some way. I’m open to hear. Her road, though normally triumphant, was not an easy road.

    It could be argued that the game of tennis–the business and media highs–did not need Serena as much as it did Mac. Serena did a lot, represented her race and minorities, and was an exceptional athlete who was a joy to watch. But she often seemed to have an angst to her. She was of course not much of a playful player like Djokovic or Nastase, or Connors or Agassi.

    Serena was like Jack Nicklaus–captivating because she won everything and, for a long time, was so much better than everyone else. Still, Graf and Seles and later the 2000s females were fun and exciting… tennis could have lived without Serena… not easily without Mac.

    Mac talks about the leeway he was granted in terms of his outbursts and he even states he amped things up in the pros and in his exhibitions as a senior because of that. Referring to the umpire or the experience or himself as “the pits of the world” is a far cry from “shove this ball down your throat.”

    Jimmy Connors once blurted out on court: “This is what they want to see…” when he was doing his emotional best and bleeding his heart out on center court.

    I wish Serena a good rest of her life. Coming clean–which some do over time–and admitting their missteps is a good thing. The public knows what she did was outlandish, but it was not out of character for her. A bit of growth can happen and cleanse the soul and make one a better, stronger person and better mentor for others.

    Me hopes this occurs within one of the greatest athletic champions in history.

    In Aloha,

    Sifu Slim, author/coach/speaker
    TheAgingAthlete.com

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