John McEnroe’s most notorious on-court outburst – there are a few to choose from – arguably came in a marginal 1984 tournament in Stockholm. It is epic for several reasons, not least of which is that the crowd fell into a shocked silence, making McEnroe’s ranting perfectly audible.
Early in the match, he fired a ball at a spectator. That cost him a warning.
In the second set, he went ballistic after what he thought an incorrect line call. He yelled at the umpire, “No mistakes so far in this match, right?” When the official attempted to move calmly on, McEnroe shrieked, “Answer the question! The question, jerk!” That cost him a point.
A few minutes later, McEnroe moved over to the sideline and began hacking at his chair and smashing water glasses – they were real glasses. That cost him a full game penalty.
Twenty-five years later, after he’d calmed down just a little, McEnroe told a reporter he was embarrassed to recall it. Especially the part about getting “soda all over the king of Sweden, who was sitting in the front row.”
The epilogue to that story – McEnroe was losing that match when he freaked out and went on to win it.
Serena Williams tried something similar in Saturday’s U.S. Open women’s final. It didn’t go as well, especially the part about turning a by-the-numbers athletic snit-fit into the newest salient in the gender wars.
Williams’s collapse was well under way when she threw a rod – trailing by a set to Japanese newcomer Naomi Osaka and about to lose another.
It started with a warning that she was being directed from the stands through hand signals from her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou – a no-no. Williams denied it at length. Mouratoglou later admitted to the coaching.
That led to some obligatory racquet smashing, which resulted in a point deducted. Then she called chair umpire Carlos Ramos “a thief,” which set him off as well. He levelled a full-game penalty. Williams fell apart, screaming at Ramos and demanding that tournament officials come out and address her complaints.
Meanwhile, Osaka stood off to the side, looking excruciated. Helpfully, the crowd was booing up a storm. The unrest in the stands bled into the trophy ceremony that followed a few moments later, causing much general upset, not least to Osaka.
“I know everyone was cheering for her,” Osaka said, weeping. “I’m sorry it had to end like this.”
Is all of this unfortunate for us as viewers (which seemed to be the self-pitying conclusion broadcasters reached)? I guess that depends on why you watch professional sports.
Are you looking for feats of strength? Because I can direct you to a gym near your home when you can observe very fit people lifting things.
Or are you more in it for the drama? Because if that’s your bag, this was about as good as tennis gets.
No one was cheated. The best woman on the day plainly won. No official turned any result. Williams managed that on her own.
This wasn’t sexism as Williams and her defenders labelled it later, or certainly not an obvious example.
Ramos is a well-known disciplinarian who’s gone after all sorts. He’s driven Rafael Nadal to frustrated paranoia before – "He is an umpire who scrutinizes me more and who fixates on me more” – and Nadal is usually as serene as a potted plant.
On the other side, this wasn’t Williams showing she has no class or any of the other facile comments that could be found on social media as the on-court tirade continued.
This was a winner showing you how much winning matters. We’re not talking about kicking a ball in during a round of golf with your buddies. We’re talking about winning in the real world, with serious money and legacies on the line. Sometimes it can be ugly.
Like McEnroe, Jimmy Connors or Andre Agassi before he softened, Williams has never just been playing tennis out there. She’s waging psychological warfare on her opponent. The whoops, the go-right-through-you stares and, yes, the occasional frothing meltdown, are all tools in her psy-ops kit. She is constantly reminding you that you aren’t just trying to beat a person, but a legend.
Ramos started the fight (perfectly correctly), but Williams enthusiastically escalated it, stretching out the argument so that the streaking Osaka was left cooling her heels.
At the outset at least, you could see calculation in the way Williams repeatedly returned to the chair to have the point re-explained, riling the crowd. This was all straight out of the John McEnroe Handbook to Tennis’s Dark Arts.
Obviously, it blew up on her quite spectacularly, but it was worth taking the chance.
What happened as a result wasn’t an example of the patriarchy run amok, a blow for feminism, a conspiracy or in any way unfair. It was sports. Weird things happen, and then the rest of us get to argue about them.
If this sudden eruption of interesting things moves you to high dudgeon, either for or against, I refer you by-the-numbers men’s final on Sunday. Novak Djokovic beat Juan Martin del Potro 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-3. The tennis was good and the Serb was great. We’ll forget it happened in a month.
They’ll be taking about Williams/Osaka in a decade. That’s as high praise as you can give a match.
I do suspect Williams began rethinking the wisdom of taking such extreme measures once she got a look at the ashen Osaka afterward. Williams gave her a little hug – not something out of her usual postmatch playbook. It would also explain the chilly ferocity of her press-room attack on Ramos’s motivations.
No one likes to see a charming 20-year-old’s dream being crushed in real time. Someone’s going to wear that. After all the think pieces are published and the matter has had time to marinate in the public mind, it will probably be Williams.
You can call her a poor sport. That’s a reasonable position to hold. But though she lost, she can never be called a loser.
Like a long cast of iconic tennis berserkers who came before her, Williams cares too deeply for that. To her own great disadvantage, she just showed everyone how much.