Serena Williams Doesn’t Speak for My Daughter or Me

I’m not a serious tennis fan, but over the years, I’ve followed the amazing career of Serena Williams. In fact, she’s hard not to watch, such a force of sheer athleticism and drive, not to mention all the spellbinding, gutsy grunts that accompany each swing of the racket. In addition, her striking, glamorous face has covered countless magazines over the years from fitness to fashion. She’s got the world’s attention, including mine. That’s why her recent rant at the US Open truly disappointed this mom.

If you haven’t seen her massive meltdown during the finals of the US Open against twenty-year-old Naomi Osaka, needless to say, it’s pretty epic. Williams is accused of getting coaching from the sidelines, which she vehemently denies, despite the fact that in an interview after the match her coach admitted to giving her signals. Although he tried to justify it by saying everyone does it and she wasn’t looking at him anyway. Initially, though, Williams seems to handle the first violation with relative calm. Considering the outcome, her anger is only simmering. When things begin to go south for the world-class athlete who’s playing an opponent nearly half her age, she launches her racket to the ground out of frustration. With the mangled racket front and center on the screen, she is awarded a second violation. Again, Williams is trailing Osaka who is playing with daring moxie. Now she unleashes on the umpire, scolding and threatening him. She engages him and when he answers, she shuts him down telling him to stop talking to her. When she doesn’t get the apology she’s bitterly seeking, she calls him a thief for taking a point from her and storms off. The umpire retaliates by calling another violation for verbal abuse by awarding the game to Williams’s stoic opponent. To my mind, Williams exhibits the classic escalation of an unchecked temper and ego in the face of disappointment.

Here are a few of the most memorable quotes from the tantrum that followed:

“It’s not fair. It’s not fair. This is not fair.”

“Because I’m a woman you take this away from me?”

“Do you know how many men do much worse out here?”

She cries sexism. Already, she is being hailed as a true hero in the women’s movement. Tennis great, Billy Jean King has come out thanking Serena Williams for exposing a double standard. The National Organization for Women has called the episode with Williams “an abhorrent display of male dominance and discrimination.”

Seriously? On the playground, we used to call it being a sore loser. I’ve refereed battles between my own elementary school-aged kids who use the same exact language that this tennis legend touted in the US Open.

“But mommy! It’s not fair! This is NOT FAIR!”

“Because I’m the oldest/ youngest/ a boy/ a girl you take this away from me?!”

“My brother/sister has done much worse and they don’t EVER get punished!”

Williams even invoked her own daughter at one point, explaining that she stands for what’s right for her daughter’s sake. But this is not the model I want for my own daughter. What if we all compared our bad actions to others’ as a way to justify them? We’ve all done it at one point I imagine. Who hasn’t tried to get out of a jam by pointing out that others have done much worse? But who are we kidding? Can Asia Argento, a fallen heroine of the #metoo movement, explain away the crime she’s accused of, statutory rape of a 17-year-old costar, by pointing to all the horrific assaults and abuses committed by Harvey Weinstein? How would the world court respond if she said, “But he did much worse! This is happening to me because I’m a woman. Men do a lot worse than this!” What she did is bad. She is accused of victimizing a teenager. The sheer amount of what he did is worse. But that doesn’t negate the horrific act that she is accused of perpetrating.

It’s so disturbing to see someone unravel and completely lose their composure after a setback, whether their name is Roger, Johnny Mac, or Serena. In fact, her being a woman and a new mom made me want to see her succeed even more. I suspect most moms who have ever carried around extra weight after a pregnancy were truly rooting for this superstar who had made such strides as a woman, a mother, and an athlete. To come back and play at such a high standard at the advanced sporting age of 36 shortly after giving birth—My oh my! I could barely manage to wash my hair within the first year after my oldest was born. But this kind of poor sportsmanship is not what I want for my little girl. She’s a tough cookie! While I try to treat my kids equally, it’s virtually impossible to always be perfectly even-handed. There are times my punishment will be more harsh with one versus another. But that doesn’t mean I let her slide. I expect great things from her. I will never lower the bar. When she screws up, I won’t let her tell me her brothers have done much worse. I love her too much to accept that.

If I were Serena’s friend, I might tell her, “It’s hard to have righteous indignation when you haven’t acted righteously.” As Christians, we should learn to compare ourselves to those who challenge us to be better, to do the right thing, especially when it’s hard. We need to look to the saints. True freedom isn’t choosing evil. Free will is choosing to do the good and just thing. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states it beautifully.

“By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.” —1731 CCC

Serena Williams’ response to legitimate disappointment was neither good nor mature. I feel for the young woman whose big win was overshadowed by all the hullaballoo from her losing opponent. Naomi Osaka had to watch her tennis idol devolve in a tailspin of anger. And now her legendary grand slam victory will be forever clouded and muddled by a temper tantrum that is being heralded as an act of heroism for all women. Not for Naomi. Not for my daughter. Not for me.

*Photo by Ben Hershey on Unsplash