Just Play the Game

So…I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.

511px-Osaka_WMQ15_(6)_(19957109051)It is an old joke and not terribly funny.  But it kept running through my mind as I watched the women’s final match of the US Open Tennis Championships.

I decided to watch the women’s singles championship on Saturday, September 8.  It portended to be an interesting encounter between Serena Williams, winner of more tennis championships than anyone else in history, and Naomi Osaka, a 20-year-old phenom who appeared on the brink of becoming the “next Serena”. It added interest that Serena was Naomi’s childhood idol and here they were competing against each other.

Sadly, as I’m sure you know by now, what should have been a compelling competition turned into a surreal display of childish temper that was embarrassing to watch and should have been even more awkward to be a part of directly.

I’m not going to recount the entire sorry saga.  In brief, Serena got whupped badly in the first set.  She got a warning from the umpire because her coach was coaching from the stands, which is not allowed.

She got another warning when things were going poorly for her in the second set and she threw a tantrum and smashed her racket on the court. That is a painful thing to watch for someone like me who probably couldn’t afford one of her rackets, let alone the luxury of intentionally breaking one.  In Serena’s case, the fit meant Naomi was awarded an extra point.

Serena didn’t like this and went on a further tirade that eventually resulted in Naomi being awarded an entire game. And Naomi proceeded to close out the second set and win the match.

If you listened to Serena’s rant – as well as the commentary by some “experts” during and after the event – you got the impression that Serena had been unjustly picked on by the umpire and had been a victim of the entire oppressive male-dominated tennis oligarchy.

Serena_Williams_I have a different view.

Serena’s coach was giving her signals from the stands, which isn’t allowed.  He admitted it after the match but gave the old “everybody does it” excuse.  I tried that on a cop who stopped me for a violation once; it didn’t work.

Of course, this wasn’t the first time I’ve seen a player smash a racket on the court. And it wasn’t the first time a player was penalized or fined for such an outburst. It is awful sportsmanship and a bad example for all the little girls for whom Serena claims to be a role model.

And the game penalty? Well, after Serena had halted play, threatened the umpire a couple times, ranted, raved, and turned the event into something akin to the warmup debate for a professional wrestling match, what did she expect?

What seems lost in much of the analysis is that there was one person who had the power at any point in the fiasco to put a stop to it and return everyone to watching two talented athletes play tennis: Serena.  All she had to do was close her mouth and play tennis.

Maybe Serena did get a bad call, although it all looked on the up-and-up to me. But even if, I remember playing at a critical moment in a high-school basketball game (during one of the rare moments the coach dared bring me off the bench) and I stole the ball from the other team. To accomplish this stunning feat, I smacked the opposing player across the arm, but the referee didn’t call a foul.

I mentioned it to my coach later and he laughed and said: “it isn’t a call if it isn’t a foul.” Then he reminded me never to complain to the referee because there would be times when I didn’t foul but a foul would be called.  He was right.

The umpire didn’t cost Serena the match. She lost because Naomi outplayed her. And Serena not only lost the match but an opportunity to be a champion who was gracious during and after defeat.

Naomi was gracious in victory. What a confusing and disappointing moment it must have been for her, a moment she had dreamed up, a noble battle between her and her idol. Instead, she watcher the woman she so admired turn into a tempest of temper.

Naomi Osaka may become a great tennis champion, maybe one of the all-time greats. If that happens, there will be a day in the future when a younger player takes her throne. I’m betting she will remember her first championship and will want the one she loses to be marked by her display of gracious dignity. People remember dignity.

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