Chair umpire Carlos Ramos managed to rob not one but two players in the women’s U.S. Open final. Nobody has ever seen anything like it: An umpire so wrecked a big occasion that both players, Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams alike, wound up distraught with tears streaming down their faces during the trophy presentation and an incensed crowd screamed boos at the court. Ramos took what began as a minor infraction and turned it into one of the nastiest and most emotional controversies in the history of tennis, all because he couldn’t take a woman speaking sharply to him.
Williams abused her racket, but Ramos did something far uglier: He abused his authority. Champions get heated — it’s their nature to burn. All good umpires in every sport understand that the heart of their job is to help temper the moment, to turn the dial down, not up, and to be quiet stewards of the event rather than to let their own temper play a role in determining the outcome. Instead, Ramos made himself the chief player in the women’s final. He marred Osaka’s first Grand Slam title and one of Williams’s last bids for all-time greatness. Over what? A tone of voice. Male players have sworn and cursed at the top of their lungs, hurled and blasted their equipment into shards, and never been penalized as Williams was in the second set of the U.S. Open final.
“I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and that want to express themselves and wants to be a strong woman,” she said afterward.
It was pure pettiness from Ramos that started the ugly cascade in the first place, when he issued a warning over “coaching,” as if a signal from Patrick Mouratoglou in the grandstand has ever been the difference in a Serena Williams match. It was a technicality that could be called on any player in any match on any occasion and ludicrous in view of the power-on-power match that was taking place on the court between Williams and the 20-year-old Osaka. It was one more added stressor for Williams, still trying to come back from her maternity leave and fighting to regain her fitness and resume her pursuit of Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles. “I don’t cheat,” she told Ramos hotly.
When Williams, still seething, busted her racket over losing a crucial game, Ramos docked her a point. Breaking equipment is a violation, and because Ramos already had hit her with the coaching violation, it was a second offense and so ratcheted up the penalty.
The controversy should have ended there. At that moment, it was up to Ramos to de-escalate the situation, to stop inserting himself into the match and to let things play out on the court. In front of him were two players in a sweltering state, who were giving their everything, while he sat at a lordly height above them. Below him, Williams vented, “You stole a point from me. You’re a thief.”
There was absolutely nothing worthy of penalizing in the statement. It was pure vapor release. She said it in a tone of wrath, but it was compressed and controlled. All Ramos had to do was to continue to sit coolly above it, and Williams would have channeled herself back into the match. But he couldn’t take it. He wasn’t going to let a woman talk to him that way. A man, sure. Ramos has put up with worse from a man. At the French Open in 2017, Ramos leveled Rafael Nadal with a ticky-tacky penalty over a time delay, and Nadal told him he would see to it that Ramos never refereed one of his matches again.
But he wasn’t going to take it from a woman pointing a finger at him and speaking in a tone of aggression. So he gave Williams that third violation for “verbal abuse” and a whole game penalty, and now it was 5-3, and we will never know whether young Osaka really won the 2018 U.S. Open or had it handed to her by a man who was going to make Serena Williams feel his power. It was an offense far worse than any that Williams committed. Chris Evert spoke for the entire crowd and television audience when she said, “I’ve been in tennis a long time, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Competitive rage has long been Williams’s fuel, and it’s a situational personality. The whole world knows that about her, and so does Ramos. She has had instances where she ranted and deserved to be disciplined, but she has outlived all that. She has become a player of directed passion, done the admirable work of learning self-command and grown into one of the more courteous and generous champions in the game. If you doubted that, all you had to do was watch how she got a hold of herself once the match was over and how hard she tried to make it about Osaka.
Williams understood that she was the only person in the stadium who had the power to make that incensed crowd stop booing. And she did it beautifully. “Let’s make this the best moment we can,” she said.
The tumultuous emotions at the end of the match were complex and deep. Osaka didn’t want to be given anything and wept over the spoil. Williams was sickened by what had been taken from her and also palpably ill over her part in depriving a great new young player of her moment. The crowd was livid on behalf of both.
Ramos had rescued his ego and, in the act, taken something from Williams and Osaka that they can never get back. Perhaps the most important job of all for an umpire is to respect the ephemeral nature of the competitors and the contest. Osaka can never, ever recover this moment. It’s gone. Williams can never, ever recover this night. It’s gone. And so Williams was entirely right in calling him a “thief.”