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Jeff Simon: Serena Williams was TV victim of another century's revenge

Jeff Simon

Serena Williams kept it together.

Her 10-minute news conference after her now legendary "meltdown" during her U.S. Open final loss to Naomi Osaka was admirably composed -- for about nine and a half minutes, that is.

And then pure pain and humanity broke through.

It ended in entirely understandable tears as the shrieking injustice of it all -- and the indomitability of her historic position in her sport -- hit her.

You had to see the whole thing on TV to get its power in context. Here, after answering all questions with amiable composure, is what she said when the brutality of the moment couldn't be denied:

She has always been a tempestuous athlete. On Sunday, a warning earned by her coach (but almost certainly unjust) and point penalty for denting her racket in anger led to her calling the match umpire a "thief,"which led to an entire game deducted from her score for the set. It happened at just that moment in the match when, in past tough matches, she has rallied to recover her game.

"I've seen others -- men -- call the umpires other things. I'm here fighting for women's rights and for women's equality and for all kinds of stuff. And for me to say 'thief' and for him to take a game. It makes me feel like it was a sexist remark. He never took a game from a man because he said he was a thief. For me, it blew my mind.

"But I'm going to continue to fight for women and to fight for us to have equal ... This is outrageous. The fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person -- who has emotions, who wants to express themselves. And they want to be a strong woman. And they're going to be allowed to after today.

"Maybe it didn't work out for me, but it's going to work out for the next person."

Then she stood up wearing her pink T-shirt with "Nike" emblazoned in big letters on the front. And walked out.

The winner of Saturday's match -- emerging Japanese tennis prodigy Naomi Osaka -- earned a cool $ 3 million. U.S. Open prize money has been declared equal for both genders, a fact that can't help but rankle some in tennis who are nostalgic for the "good old days" when women received less despite attracting as many viewers if not sometimes more.

Twenty-first century televised tennis is so asininely out of touch with the real world that Serena was called "Mrs. Williams" at both Wimbledon and the U. S. Open despite the fact she's nothing of a sort. Legally, I suppose, she is Mrs. Alexis Ohanian, which is the name of her Reddit billionaire husband.

She wants, though, to be called just "Serena Williams," the way any athlete who was a childhood prodigy would want to be. If honorifics must be thrown at her, the Western world figured out about 50 years ago that Ms. -- pronounced "Miz" -- would suffice.

It would be dated, to be sure, but infinitely better than the egregious and idiotically preposterous, "Mrs. Williams."

That's just one small sample example of why the 21st century has its head inserted in its nether regions when the subject is women's tennis. Forbidding them to wear cat suits on the court is another. Those of us who thought we'd been through all this decades ago with Billie Jean King discovered yet again Saturday the miracle of stupidity is that it's almost indomitable.


That's what those final seconds of her news conference signified.

You know, when she stood up and left, wearing her pink T-short with "Nike" emblazoned on the front.

Nike -- the company that not only didn't forsake a kneeling football player when the rest of the NFL did, but constructed a whole new ad campaign around him.

There is, in television sports, another world painfully waiting to be born. It may have hit Serena Williams hard when she collided with the wrong male umpire at the wrong time in the wrong place and reacted -- on the court -- without the composure and grace she showed in abundance later after the match (when incensed fans booed the officiating and the entire tennis establishment lustily and unappeasibly until Williams quieted the crowd's boos lest it ruin the experience for both loser and winner -- who had, in fact, played a terrific match).

I remembered watching, with disgust, years ago some of Jimmy Connors' antics on the court. My disgust turned to pure contempt a couple years later for John McEnroe when it seemed as if he were singlehandedly trying to sabotage the reputation of all Long Island child-rearing by having obscenely infantile tantrums at tennis umpires.

In a just world, McEnroe wouldn't have lost a game for his obnoxious tirades, he'd have spent the weekend punitively picking up and washing every dirty towel for that entire weekend tournament.

Connors was boorish. I found McEnroe, at his worst, repulsive. Compared to Serena Williams' sympathetic fury, he seemed to come from a decidedly lesser species. I'll grant he turned into an entertaining commentator later, but on the court in his prime he was vile.

When I thought it all over, I recognized what was happening. Tennis' TV ratings for Connors, McEnroe and King were going through the roof and becoming competitive in a way they weren't necessarily decades before. Money was being made. Prize money was growing. An entire sport was being yanked unceremoniously away from its old knee-jerk attempts at upper middle class gentility.

That's all well and good, but on the weekend just passed we saw the entire sport thrown back to another time, just so one of the most dominant athletes of the 21st century could be pushed around and taught a lesson for being such an influential star.

The lesson? No, you can't wear whatever you choose to a match. You can't just be known by your name "Serena Williams" on a tennis court. You can't call an over-stepping umpire a "thief," even after McEnroe was known for emptying half a playground worth of obscenities at other umpires.

Should she have kept a cooler head? Of course. Should the umpire have simply warned her -- before deducting a game -- of what could happen? Of course, of course.

What we watched was a pure injustice rare in TV sports, but we saw something else, too.

We're seeing emblazoned on T-shirts and shown in commercials a new century coming to us in a new way.

We're seeing that one of the most progressive forces in American sports is a corporation that understands those buying its goods these days aren't just the white middle class of yore.

That corporation would rather support justice-seeking black Americans taking a knee, would rather their clothes were worn by legendary black women athletes than tennis umpires and big shots permanently lost in 1958.

When's the last time we saw a corporation unashamedly teach a country how to progress toward simple common sense?

You'll have to give me a minute. I'm still thinking.

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