The United States Tennis Association is convening an internal group to make recommendations on changes in officiating and coaching rules in the wake of multiple high-profile chair-umpire incidents at this year’s U.S. Open.
The most prominent of those came at the women’s singles final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka on Sept. 8. USTA officials, sources said, were angry at the actions of chair umpire Carlos Ramos in assessing violations against Williams that led to an entire game penalty. While the umpire was technically within his rights for assessing a coaching violation, then one for racquet abuse and one for “verbal abuse” after she called him a “thief,” past infractions of a similar nature have largely led to warnings or been ignored altogether. Charges of sexism and racism quickly ensued.
The USTA sent its chief referee, Brian Earley, onto the court after Ramos docked Williams a game in the second set of her loss to Osaka, but Earley was powerless to do anything because of the rules in place, the same ones the USTA may now want to change.
According to USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier, the recommendations from the group would be for “the consistent applications of rules and specifically coaching.”
The U.S. Open is a $300 million event that just enjoyed its 50th anniversary with record-setting attendance. But it will be remembered most for the uproar that followed the women’s final. The officials at the event are hired by the U.S. Open but certified by the International Tennis Federation, and they follow rules agreed on by the four Grand Slams.
While defenders of the chair umpire maintain he was following the letter of the law, those rules are open to wide interpretation. For example, coaching is not allowed during a match. However, it is widely ignored when coaches signal from the stands, as Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, admitted doing for her. The rule as written says the player must receive the coaching. It’s unclear if Ramos had visual evidence of Williams acknowledging Mouratoglou’s gesticulations.
In a similar incident in 2016 with Serena’s sister, Venus Williams, at the French Open, Ramos gave only a warning. That is different from a violation, two of which lead to a point penalty and the third of which costs a player a game.
The USTA has pushed for coaching and allows it in the junior and qualifying events. But the other Slams are opposed. One source within the USTA said it is possible the Open could act unilaterally if the other Slams do not act to end the inconsistent application of the non-coaching rules.
That said, the larger issue is who has control of the officials — who are independent contractors — in a sport with different rules and different applications of those rules.
“It’s weird,” said Ilana Kloss, the former CEO of World TeamTennis. “I mean, you know the tours have no control at the Grand Slams, and then the Grand Slams have no control over the officials. It’s crazy.”
The WTA Tour, which criticized what it termed inconsistent application of rules in the case of Williams, is undertaking its own review of officiating.
“The WTA believes that there should be no difference in the standards of tolerance provided to the emotions expressed by men vs. women and is committed to working with the sport to ensure that all players are treated the same. We do not believe that this was done last night,” WTA CEO Steve Simon said in a statement released Sept. 9.