Serena Williams: Who is to blame for US Open controversy?

posted on: September 10, 2018
author: Brian Lomax

Serena and Mental Toughness

Photo by Hanson K Joseph

The 2018 US Open Women’s final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka was unfortunately marred by controversy. Many opinions have been expressed about what happened on the court and the fairness of it all. Was this a case of a chair umpire overstepping his bounds? Or perhaps this was a case of a frustrated player letting her emotions get away from her because she was losing. Maybe there’s a bit of both involved. Regardless, let’s examine the incident through a different lens – the lens of mental toughness.

To begin our analysis, let’s start with 5 fundamental truths that hold for sport and life.

1. Being mentally tough is not easy

Being mentally tough is TOUGH! It’s also not natural. It is very difficult to be mentally tough 100% of the time, and all great competitors stumble at times. That list includes every top tennis player including Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and yes, Serena Williams. They have all had moments of mental weakness in their careers. That doesn’t make them bad competitors or bad role models. They’re just human. At times, we all suffer from nerves, lose emotional control, or misdirect our focus. The best just do these things a lot less than the rest of us.

2. Life is not fair

Life is not fair, and we shouldn’t expect it to be. In sport, there are going to be times when officials make bad calls, your opponents cheat, fans interfere with play, or weather is unfavorable. That’s just the way it is. Expecting life to be fair and perfect is a path to misery.

3. Adversity is a part of life and sport

Adversity is a part of every competition. Performing well and winning is not easy. There is often a lot of suffering on the journey. In addition to the types of adversity mentioned in the previous section, we are going to lose points, lose games, play badly, lose our confidence, focus on things out of our control, etc. Sometimes our opponents are just playing great and there’s nothing we can do about it. We have to expect adversity and know how to respond to it.

4. We get to choose how we respond to adversity

How we respond to adversity is our choice. To paraphrase various thought leaders in the world of success, it’s not about what happens to us, it’s about how we respond to what happens to us. Our response to adversity is an indicator of our mental toughness. When we are competing, our mission is to win, and everything we do during the competition must be in the service of that mission. Losing emotional control does not serve that mission.

5. We must own our response to adversity

How we respond to adversity is 100% our responsibility. We must practice extreme ownership in this area. Blaming others for what happens to us is a victim mentality. Mentally tough competitors don’t blame others; they take responsibility for their actions.

If you accept that points 1, 2 and 3 above are true, then points 4 and 5 are where Serena didn’t live up to the standard of being mentally tough in this match. No one made her say the things she said. She was not forced to abuse her racquet. She chose to take those actions. Those were her responses to adversity, and unfortunately, she didn’t take responsibility for them (and neither have many of her supporters).

Should we blame the officials?

Many people are pointing at chair umpire Carlos Ramos as the villain in this affair. Frankly, from a mental toughness perspective, I don’t see it that way. When you (or your coach) act outside of the rules or accepted norms of behavior, you are opening yourself up to the judgment and whims of an official. Whether that official is consistent in enforcing a particular rule is not the issue. Your behavior made you vulnerable to that person’s judgment in the situation. If the official doesn’t call you out on it, you were fortunate. If he/she does, it’s your fault, not his/hers.

On Saturday afternoon, Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, was coaching her from the player’s box. The rules say that coaching is not allowed at the Grand Slam tournaments. Everyone knows that is the rule. He decided to coach her during the match anyway, and has admitted that. By taking that action, he put his player in danger of being penalized. Whether this infraction is enforced consistently is not the issue. He knowingly did something that he knew could be flagged as a rule violation. You can certainly make an argument that Ramos should not have made that call in a Grand Slam final, but again, that is not the issue when it comes to being mentally tough. The argument that “everyone else does it (coaching)” is not valid either.

Officials are human and therefore, unpredictable. When Serena abused her racquet, she placed herself at the mercy of the chair umpire. She did it again when she went on a verbal tirade. By rule, both of those behaviors are code violations and therefore are subject to the judgment of the chair umpire. She deserved what she got.  But let’s not pile on Serena too much; being mentally tough all the time is very hard.

The Lesson

To be a truly mentally tough competitor, you cannot act in a way that puts your fate in the hands of an official. If you do, you have to accept the consequences. That is the lesson here. If you can ensure that your response to adversity keeps you focused on playing to win, it’s a lot less likely that an official will determine your fate in the end. You can also look back and be proud of how you handled a difficult situation. Keep the 5 fundamental truths above in your mind when competing, and you will be much more likely to handle adverse situations well.

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About the Author

Brian Lomax founded PerformanceXtra™ in 2009 with a mission of helping athletes achieve their goals and their top performances more consistently through a progression of mental skills that enables them to focus on what is truly important.

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10 responses to “Serena Williams: Who is to blame for US Open controversy?”

  1. The game penalty was overly harsh, effectively a death penalty in the circumstances Serena was facing. (down 5-3 in the 2nd set). But Naomi Osaka appeared to not contest Serena’s service game following the penalty. She either stood there or appeared to deliberately return serve into the net or out.

    One could hardly want to take advantage of such a situation and be credited with the umpire awarding her the championship. Still, that put Serena at a disadvantage (down 5-4 instead of 4-3 in a do or die situation).

    One wishes that cooler heads had prevailed. The “I’d rather lose than cheat to win” comments from Serena overstated the severity (to me) of being impugned with ‘coaching.’ It appeared rather, that against a competitor who was likely to win, Serena took the adversity out of context and blew it up. A mental toughness death spiral.

  2. noura says:

    I read everything you email, and I was interested to read you again.
    I have to disagree with you on this one, as much as Serena “lost it”, the umpire needs some “finesse” when he is referring a grand Slam final. And especially with Serena history, she has been the target of some many “unfair” treatment in her tennis life, how long can you stay calm and say nothing about it? She said she did not got coaching, whatever her coach was doing, she did not see it and should not be punished for it. She stood up for what was right.

  3. Susan Rainville says:

    Serena is good at a lot of things. Losing isn’t one of them.

  4. Brian Lomax says:

    It’s perfectly ok for you to disagree with me on my analysis. And I agree with you that Serena has had a lot of bad luck with officials in the past. But that can’t come into play in a match like this. As I said, life isn’t fair.

    What I didn’t mention in the post is that Carlos Ramos is known to be an enforcer of the rules. Everyone on tour knows that. At Wimbledon, he warned Novak Djokovic for coaching and gave him a code violation for racquet abuse. So it shouldn’t be a surprise to a player if he calls a violation.

    Lastly, it doesn’t matter if Serena saw what her coach was doing. In team sports, the team on the field can be penalized for the behavior of the coach or players on the bench. This is the same thing. Her coach got caught, and she got the warning. That’s how it works.

  5. Alexis Avila says:

    Excellent post. Well handled!

  6. Tim says:

    For those interested in exploring other perspectives that tie in the history of the game to the underlying struggles of women, let alone black women in our society – here is a good read shared with me by a friend…

    • Brian Lomax says:

      Thanks for posting that link, Tim. The one major issue I have with some of the pieces taking that stance is the certainty they have with knowing exactly what Carlos Ramos was thinking when Serena was speaking to him. How do they know that? I have no idea what was going through his mind, and I don’t think anyone else does either.

  7. John Wilcox says:

    Serena is a victim by choice in this or any other action like this. The worse part is that all the narcissistic like behavior to seek attention (any kind) took so much away of the incredible effort and result Osaka had in this match. Brian as always – the truth shall free her if she chooses to address it properly not partially. Also she and any competitor for that matter should shy away from shame and blame and set a solid examples for many including those closest to her and her fans. People don’t respect this behavior general and she should embrace learning from it.

  8. Cecilia says:

    Brian, excellent analysis! When a player smashes their racquet, it reminds me of a toddler throwing their toys out of frustration. I’ve been watching Serena for her entire tennis career. I cringe and feel so disappointed in her when she loses her temper and smashes her racquet. Her coach needs to work with her on acceptable alternatives to deal with her frustrations.

  9. Steve Gulla says:

    Wholeheartedly agree with your analysis, Brian! Respect the rules of the game and the sport as a whole and you won’t put yourself in the unenviable position of losing points and games. She just couldn’t let it go and in the end it cost her dearly. The travesty of it all is it took away from an amazing performance by Osaka.

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