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All players, including Serena Williams, must show respect to umpires

26 Sep 2018

As I have stated often in my writing, one of the great pleasures of working at Sports Community is that we get to travel all over the country. We work with and learn from great people and their clubs. In the last four weeks these travels have taken me to Canberra, ACT, Adelaide, SA and Mildura, VIC. In both Canberra and Mildura – great Australian sporting towns – the front page of the local newspapers were running stories about umpires threatening to not officiate in the upcoming finals series.

The Capital Football referees concerns were reported in an article by Caden Helmers in the The Sydney Morning Herald”. While I don’t know the specifics of the issue, one line from Caden’s article stood out to me. Caden wrote: “…some feel there is a culture in soccer that has long made referee abuse the norm.”

People will have differing opinions on this statement, but we must all work to ensure that under no circumstances can we allow referee abuse to become the norm in Australian sports. Not at any level, nor in elite competitions. Not in community sport.

It is to this setting of deteriorating respect for umpires, referees and match-day officials that it is important to call out Serena Williams’ behaviour in the Women’s Final of the 2018 US Open for what it is: completely unacceptable and intolerable. All players, including Serena Williams, must show respect to umpires.

The Rules of Tennis

The Women’s Final of the US Open is a game of tennis. If you wish to compete in the tournament you agree to abide by the rules of tennis. The rules of tennis require points to be played with line umpires and the chair umpires making decisions as to the winner of points. They ensure the game is played according to and in the spirit of the rules of tennis.

It is important to allow Umpires to make mistakes.

Umpires are like players, they live in the moment. They are compelled to make split-second decisions. Carlos Ramos, the Chair Umpire, in the 2018 US Open Women’s Final was doing just that when he gave Serena Williams a warning for receiving coaching from the stands.

Was this the right decision?

In all the media coverage following the final, not one person has taken the time to recognise that it actually doesn’t matter if the decision was technically right or wrong.

Umpires must be allowed to make calls and decisions without fear or favour. They must be allowed to make decisions without the threat of being called racist and sexist. Players must show respect to umpires and a high-profile player like Serena Williams is not an exception.

As Serena’s poor behavior escalated, so did the penalties

After the initial warning, Serena was docked a point for smashing a racquet and then penalized an entire game when she called Carlos Ramos a “thief”, “a liar” and stating, “you will not be on a court with me for as long as you live”.

This behaviour, no matter who it was from or what was the cause, deserved the penalties.  

Sexism and racism

Williams implied during the confrontation that an underlying cause of the initial warning was driven by racial or sexist motivations. She stated she was calling these behaviours out at the time they occurred.

I am certainly not going to comment on the validity of Williams’ feelings. What is unquestionable to me is that the way Williams went about expressing those feelings was inappropriate and completely unacceptable.

Remember the initial issue triggered a warning, not a loss of point or game. There is no reason why Serena could not have lodged an official complaint using the proper channels and grievance procedures available in tennis, after the match.

Even more powerfully, Williams should have driven those complaints through the official processes to drive real change in the attitudes and behaviours of the game.

Consistency between genders

In her post-match press conference Williams stated:

“…there is no equality when it comes to what the men are doing to chair umpires and what the women are doing, there has to be some level of consistency across the board at every level of officiating”

I could not agree more. It is 30 years since John McEnroe abused umpires on a regular basis. Little seems to have changed.

The leaders of tennis need to take a moment, work with the players to define the behaviour that is completely unacceptable in their sport and then empower and support their umpires when they call this behaviour out.

What Williams should be doing, if she feels so strongly about her position, is working with Tennis officials to do exactly this. I am yet to hear or read any evidence this is what she is doing, which is disappointing.

Many sports have changed the way they respect their referees and umpires

We have seen many sports completely change the way their sport treats umpires and their sport is so much better off for it. The benefits in imposing acceptable standards of behaviour far outweigh any negative consequence.

All sports people, no matter what level they are playing, must treat umpires with respect.

This must become our norm.


Steve Pallas

Managing Director

Sports Community