“Serena, you’ve picked the right battle at the wrong time.”

Image: Edwin Martinez

Congratulations to Naomi Osaka for her victory: a worthy winner, a new name to revere and hopefully she will get the recognition for her seismic win when the history of this match comes to be written. Despite this, I fear the moment may have already been lost to Osaka’s opponent in the final, Serena Williams.

I don’t think there’s a worse sight in sport than what we witnessed yesterday at the US Open. Williams, intentionally or not, used her considerable platform to steal Naomi Osaka’s moment, reducing her to the point of tears as a consequence. This sickening image came moments after the 20-year-old won her maiden Grand Slam, becoming the first Japanese player ever to do so. Without trying to, Williams, through her feud with the umpire, took this huge moment from her fellow player, becoming the very thing she accused Carlos Ramos of being: a thief.

Williams, through her feud with the umpire, took this huge moment from her fellow player, becoming the very thing she accused Carlos Ramos of being: a thief.

In reality, Williams’ point has merit and basis. Even the most casual of tennis fans can see that. The anger of an icon might even serve this cause on and off the court. One thinks that if Nick Kyrigos had committed the same offence, it might have even been portrayed as the latest charming exploit of an ‘outspoken personality’. But it is plainly clear that Williams smashing her racquet, verbally abusing an umpire and receiving blatant coaching should be punished in the manner that Ramos did. Male players have done worse and should’ve also been penalised in a manner that Williams did also but bringing up this double-standard to try and justify clearly unsportsmanlike behaviour reeks of Williams trying to absolve herself from criticism. That is not a practical time to make that point, regardless of the truth ruminating in it and the $17,000 fine she received is fair for the violations she committed.

What’s more, in her flappable rage, she did something terrible: she took a young star, a new name for young women and girls to idolise, and stole her moment to fuel her cause. While Williams made efforts to rectify this post-match, by that time the damage had been done. The end goal for the women’s game has to be to have the strength, recognition, breadth of field that the men’s game enjoys, with equal opportunity and equal treatment between the two. But how can we do this breadth of field develop when a new star has emerged only to be outshone by, what has been seen as, reprehensible behaviour from a stalwart?

The 20th seed was the first player from Japan to win a Grand Slam title; a feat that sparked celebration in the country.
Image: sirobi

While the problem is definitely one that needs addressing, Williams has done more to damage her cause than to bolster it: stealing the limelight of a potential ally while acting petulantly and dragging this debate up at the worst possible time to try and defend poor on-court behaviour, a time when the people she is trying to grab the attention of can most easily ignore her, someone who, at another time, could affect real change to the sport.

Picking your battles is crucial but picking the timing of your them is more so. The very fact that I am writing now may seem to contradict my point but the media is focussed on Williams’ actions, not on her justification. They see the story as the disgraceful actions of a role model and an icon. This could’ve been both a great moment for an emerging star and a moment to start a debate, but the lack of tact employed by Williams has resigned this moment to be neither.

Williams should, of course, continue her insistence that male players get preferential treatment. It is a problem that should be addressed. But not everyone feels that way. The people that she has to convince are the ones that will reduce this issue down to the whines of a champion who didn’t get her way. It’s not fun nor fair, but if the 23-time Grand Slam winner wants to affect change in the game, she needs to, in the words of Michelle Obama, “go high when they go low”. Her legacy and the future of tennis will thank her if she does.

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