The US Open Women’s Final on Saturday between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka was as unusual a match as any in the annals of professional tennis history and has generated an intense commentary which will doubtless continue for the next few days and, among tennis professionals, into the foreseeable future. Let me state at the outset that, with this brief essay, I do not intend to contribute to the chatter in the ordinary fashion; rather, I intend to focus on one issue, “racquet abuse”, and pursue the philosophical and cultural implications of this idea. Let us dispense quickly, for the benefit of those readers who have little interest in tennis and have not kept abreast of the “controversy”, with the fundamentals: the match pitted Serena Williams, who had 23 Grand Slam singles titles and was in quest of her 24th, which would have tied her with Margaret Court for the world record, against 20-year old Naomi Osaka of Japan who was in the final of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time. At their only previous meeting, earlier this year, Osaka had defeated Williams quite handily; but the latter, who had given birth to a daughter just months ago, was not quite in her element. The outcome at the US Open was expected to be rather different.
Williams was down by one set, and—though the outcome of tennis matches, as indeed of other sporting matches, is often uncertain except when the match is extremely lopsided—the young Osaka was most likely on her way to a victory in the second set and thus the match when trouble erupted. Williams got called for a violation of the rules by the veteran Umpire, Carlos Ramos, on the grounds that she had received illegal coaching from the stands. Williams denied that she had received such coaching, and told Ramos that she would rather lose a match than win it by cheating. Some 10-15 minutes later, unable to capitalize on the service break she had achieved and finding herself being outplayed by Osaka, she smashed her racquet on the ground and was docked a point for “racquet abuse”. It is immaterial whether Williams was expressing her frustration at squandering her advantage, or whether she felt outraged at what she perceived to be the insinuation that she was violating the rules or, quite simply, cheating. Her heated words at Ramos would turn into a volley of recriminations; her “rant”, as it is being called, can be heard clearly on video. She threatened Ramos that she would see to it that he would never again preside over any of her matches: one hopes, whatever one’s view of the matter, and for the sake of the integrity of the game—or whatever integrity is possible in an age when professional sports is only another form of blood-capitalism—that such a threat will never be acted upon. Indeed, it is imperative that Ramos should be called upon to preside over another Serena Williams’ match, unless the tennis world is prepared to capitulate to the whims and dicta of a sporting superstar. And, then, to cap it all, Williams went on to call Ramos a “thief”, since she had been docked a point. For this third violation of “verbal abuse”, Ramos, playing by the rule book, docked her an entire game. Williams went on to lose, 6-2, 6-4.
We need not be detained by the details, and there is much in this set of events that calls for an extended commentary. The words “sexism” and “racism” are in the air, quite predictably so, but let me turn to the little explored question of “racquet abuse”. The discussions thus far in the public domain have focused on whether docking a point for breaking one’s racquet from a player’s score sheet is an excessive penalty or should even invite a penalty at all. The common, all too common, view is that players are “human”, as though this were not a self-evident truth, and that in the heat of the moment a player might lose his or her cool. The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) rulebook sets out the player’s code in Chapter 8, and the portion on “Racquet or Equipment Abuse” appears under “Offenses” and states the following:
Racquet or Equipment Abuse i) Players shall not violently, dangerously or with anger hit, kick or throw a racquet or other equipment within the precincts of the tournament site. For purposes of this rule, abuse of racquets or equipment is defined as intentionally, dangerously and violently destroying or damaging racquets or equipment or intentionally and violently hitting the net, court, umpire’s chair or other fixture during a match out of anger or frustration. ii) Violation of this section shall subject a player to a fine up to $500 for each violation. In addition, if such violation occurs during a match [emphasis added], the player shall be penalized in accordance with the Point Penalty Schedule.
Ramos was, then, clearly within his rights in penalizing Williams for “racquet abuse” by issuing a point against her, as specified in the Point Penalty Schedule. (Note: I am aware that professional women tennis players fall under the jurisdiction of the WTA, Women’s Tennis Association, but the rulebook is one and the same.) But just exactly what is “racquet abuse” and why should it incur a penalty at all? It is understandable that, had Serena threatened to hit another player with her racquet, she would have been called out for her offence—and that the penalty would have been far more stringent. Let us suppose that she had destroyed communal property: here, too, it is unlikely that anyone would have disputed the decision to penalize her. But Williams destroyed her own racquet and in common law one’s possessions and property are for one to dispose as one pleases. There may well be circumstances under which the state might prevent one from treating one’s own property or possessions as purely one’s own and might even claim jurisdiction over them. If, for instance, I was in possession of the sole copy of the first Bible printed in the Americas, or I had made my home in the oldest surviving building in the state of California, I might well be prevented on pain of severe punishment from burning the Bible or tearing the building down and using the lumber for my fireplace. Yet the most that can be said of Williams is that she squandered a few hundred dollars: more likely, given capitalism’s voracious appetite for pecuniary inventiveness, the destroyed autographed racquet will end up on the auction block and become worth a few thousand dollars overnight. For all we know, it may even be used to raise some money in the name of charity, or it may find a place in a museum.
The answer to the question is obvious: racquet abuse calls for a penalty because it shows the lack of sportsmanship. This answer is, not so obviously, little more than drivel. We are not living in an age of chivalry; the very word, “chivalry”, is no longer part of the lexicon of most modern societies. (Ladies, in any case, cannot be chivalrous; that quality is strictly a masculine preserve.) The idea of “sportsmanship” is attractive in the abstract but it exists only to be violated, mocked, and transgressed at every turn. Patrick Mouratoglou, who showed not the slightest hesitation in admitting that he had indeed been coaching his pupil from the stands, giving it as his justification that every coach did so, had something rather more revealing to say: “It is not a big deal breaking a racquet. She [Serena] will struggle to get back from this.” The fact that he thinks is it “not a big deal” suggests to me that there is something seriously amiss. Mouratoglou, I make bold to say, exemplifies the modern condition: he is only functionally literate, and thought is entirely alien to him. He is, of course, far from being the only one partaking of this sinister condition.
Williams has made her living from tennis racquets and acquired a fortune in the process. Her disrespect for the humble racquet is all the more disturbing for that reason. I suspect that a racquet to her is only an object which serves a purpose; it exists to be instrumentalized. Not surprisingly, Williams has a habit of abusing her racquet: in 2014, during a WTA final against Caroline Wozniacki, she smashed it repeatedly on the ground and after the match explained with a hint of thrill in her voice, “I don’t know how many times I hit it but, boy, that racket will never do me wrong again.” Her racquet is to her also a disposable object, purely inanimate. There is a story to be told about homo consumerus, with a nod to the orgiastic delights of shopping experienced by certain specimens of homo erectus, but I have a different story to relate at this juncture.That story begins with an exploration of the worker and her tools. Vishwakarma Puja, the Indian ‘festival’ which is observed in factories, workshops, and industrial areas, has always struck me as one of the more inspired instantiations of worship. Vishwakarma is the divine architect, credited with having built the city of Dwarka and crafted the weapons of the Gods. In much of India, especially northern and eastern India, during the annual Vishwakarma Puja workers—carpenters, welders, mechanics, electricians, smiths, artisans, electrical engineers, network engineers, and others—lay aside their tools and worship them. This is a grateful admission of the fact that the worker acknowledges the life-giving properties of his or her tools.
It is singularly interesting, then, that the professional tennis players’ code includes a provision against “racquet abuse”, a provision all the more arresting in that it specifies that a player may not even abuse or throw the racquet “in anger”. My own view is that modern culture, which is nothing if not barbarous in its self-aggrandizing and narcissistic drives, often retains a place, howsoever unself-consciously, for characteristically pre-modern ways of thinking. The ATP code is but a reflection of norms from which we have all become distanced, never more so when money does all the talking. Serena Williams owes, I dare say, a great many apologies, most evidently to the young Naomi Osaka and the Umpire Carlos Ramos. But her road to redemption can only begin with an apology to the humble racquet with which she crafted an entire universe for herself and her adoring fans.