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As I See It: Tennis umpire's loyalty to rules sparked US Open controversy

Naomi Osaka, of Japan, is hugged by Serena Williams after Osaka defeated Williams in the women's final of the U.S. Open tennis tournament on Sept. 8, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Would it be the first grand slam win for Serena Williams after becoming a mother? Or would young Naomi Osaka come out on top against her childhood idol? At the finals of the women's singles competition at the US Open on Sept. 8 in New York, either outcome was intriguing to fans.

However, gunning for her seventh US Open title, the 36-year-old Williams' clash with the chair umpire left a bad aftertaste when the match ended. A desperate Williams who melted down from an overwhelming mix of emotions and a chair umpire who strictly adhered to the rules -- I believe that both of them exhausting all of their energy led to the tragic ending to the story. Drawing on my own experience having played in the US Open as a professional tennis player in the 1990s, I would like to review what happened in New York as both a former player and a reporter.

It was an unusual scene. At the start of the trophy ceremony to celebrate the two women who had just completed the final, the crowd was booing. Osaka, 20, having just won her first Grand Slam title, lowered the brim of her sun visor to hide the tears in her eyes. The U.S. media was also shocked by the situation, with U.S. sports channel ESPN decrying that Osaka should not have to feel like she needed to apologize for winning the match.

Most of the 20,000 spectators that filled Arthur Ashe Stadium were all hoping for a win for Williams, who just gave birth in September last year, to show that even mothers could win titles. Up until the final, Williams dominated the tournament with her strong play, but even in front of an "away" crowd, Osaka outperformed her opponent with her superior power, speed and steady nerves.

Williams' three penalties during the second set of the match all occurred at crucial moments. Her first warning came during the second game, for a code violation when her coach allegedly gave her guidance from the stands. Not faring well in her returns in the first set, which she lost, moving toward the net was an effective measure for Serena to turn the tables. Williams was able to get a 3-1 lead over Osaka in the second set. If she managed to keep serve, it was her best opportunity to regain her momentum.

This is when Osaka said she focused the most. When a backhand by Williams got caught in the net and cost her the game, Williams smashed her racket on the court and broke it. This second violation cost her a point. Did she simply explode because she failed to take advantage of a possible turning point? I think it could also be seen as fiery resistance against the rise of a new generation of players to the top of the sport.

During my time as a player, I felt the similar feeling like magma trapped inside your body that if you did not release your anger, then there was no way you could concentrate on the match. But the important thing in these situations is to not get upset and let it have a lasting effect on you. If you don't change gears, then it will show up in your next point. While Osaka was focusing on her next move, Williams' attention was focused on moments already past.

With her lead taken away by a penalty Williams found herself losing the second set 3-4 and erupted in rage, calling the umpire a "thief." She accused him of "stealing" a point from her with his violation call. The chair umpire then judged her outburst as a third violation, which cost Williams an entire game as a penalty. Feeling his treatment of her was unfair, Williams got into an argument that came close to halting the match entirely.

Williams called the umpire sexist, and said that male players were never penalized for calling the referee a thief. Of course, Americans are sensitive when it comes to fairness. The US Open also prides itself as the first of the Grand Slam competitions to award female players the same amount of prize money as their male counterparts. A lot of support gathered behind the 23-time Grand Slam winner Williams' claim. But to me, rather than sexism, I feel that the explosion on the court was due to an umpire who was "too true to the rules of the game."

In the four majors of tennis -- the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open -- as well as in other tennis tournaments, there is a code of conduct set forth in the rules. Improper behavior earns a warning first, followed by a one-point penalty for a second infraction and finally a one-game penalty for a third offense. However, what exactly constitutes improper behavior is left up to the umpire to decide, and is, in a way, a gray area.

Chair umpire Carlos Ramos is known for his strict adherence to the rules. While Williams' comments were over-the-top, there are times when similar behavior does not receive a warning. Chair umpires are also tasked with moving the match along to foster a good spectacle. Before calling a violation, they also do things such as issuing warnings, saying, "The next penalty will be a game," and calm frayed nerves. However, the situation in the final this time just escalated. The fact that a match that many expected to be a spectacular clash of power and technique dissolved into such a debacle is unfortunate.

The booing at the trophy ceremony was not targeted at Osaka. I believe it was born out of dissatisfaction with Ramos for his perceived unfair treatment of Williams that the spectators felt killed the fire in what was a passionate match. In "Trump's America," I feel that the attitude of saying whatever you want to say without repercussions, along with societal divisions and hatred, are spreading. But I never thought that I would see a similar situation on the stage for the trophy ceremony of the US Open.

At an award ceremony that opened with jeers, Osaka thanked both the spectators and her opponent, and received applause. Perhaps Osaka could not enjoy her victory from the bottom of her heart. Still, she came away from the fray with dignity, so I believe that there will be many more chances for her to take Grand Slam titles in the future.

Being a chair umpire at the four tennis Grand Slams is also considered an honor. I was pained by the absence of Ramos, who also deserved praise, at the trophy ceremony.

Giving up my tennis career and having the opportunity to cover competitions as a reporter, there is something that I have come to realize. I learned that before a match, all the referees gather in a circle and join in vocal exercises together, and the venue staff show amazing passion in trying to get the crowd excited about a match. When I was a tennis player, advancing to the second round of a Grand Slam doubles competition was the highest I was able to climb; I was too focused on my own matches to see things like that.

If one were to liken tennis tournaments to a stage play, then I believe that not only the players, but the referees and staff, as well as the audience, all stand on stage together as members of a single act.

(Japanese original by Hiromi Nagano, Los Angeles Bureau)

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