The illustration depicts the tennis star on Saturday’s U.S. Open women’s singles final — during which she got in a verbal altercation with chair umpire Carlos Ramos, whom she called a “thief.” Williams, 36, lost to Japan’s 20-year-old Naomi Osaka.
The cartoonist, Mark Knight, drew an exaggerated caricature of Williams stomping on her tennis racket with a pacifier near her feet — which prompted comparisons to the stereotypes seen in anti-black political cartoons from the Jim Crow-era of America.
In an article published on the Herald Sun‘s website on Tuesday, Knight defended his work, saying “I drew this cartoon Sunday night after seeing the U.S. Open final, and seeing the world’s best tennis player have a tantrum and thought that was interesting.”
He added, “The cartoon about Serena is about her poor behavior on the day, not about race. The world has just gone crazy.”
Editor for the Herald Sun, Damon Johnston, also defended the cartoon. He said, “A champion tennis player had a mega tantrum on the world stage, and Mark’s cartoon depicted that. It had nothing to do with gender or race. This was about a bad sport being mocked.”
When reached for comment, the Herald Sun directed PEOPLE to their online statement.
In the background of Knight’s cartoon, an umpire is seen asking Williams’ opponent to let the athlete win. It isn’t clear whether the drawing of the white and blonde player is meant to represent Osaka, who is the daughter of a Haitian father and a Japanese mother.
Many on social media were quick to raise serious and critical questions about Knight’s cartoon.
“Well done on reducing one of the greatest sportswomen alive to racist and sexist tropes,” Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling tweeted, “and turning a second great sportswoman into a faceless prop.”
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ESPN commentator Jemele Hill called the drawing, “about as subtle as Fran Drescher’s voice.”
Initially, Knight asserted his drawing wasn’t about gender or race and, to back himself up, tweeted his cartoon of a male Australian player Nick Kyrgios, which he’s since deleted. It showed a male official bending over to speak to a defiant Kyrgios, who is then dragged by the ear by a female official in the next frame. Knight titled the panel, “What should have happened.”
Other figures have defended Williams’ actions during the finals — which resulted in three violations, including one for breaking her tennis racket — notably two tennis greats, Billie Jean King and the 2018 men’s singles U.S. Open champion Novak Djokovic.
“Women are treated differently in most arenas of life,” wrote King in the Washington Post on Sunday. “This is especially true for women of color. And what played out on the court yesterday happens far too often. It happens in sports, in the office and in public service. Ultimately, a woman was penalized for standing up for herself. A woman faced down sexism, and the match went on.”
And after his win on Sunday, Djokovic told reporters, “I have my personal opinion that maybe the chair umpire should not have pushed Serena to the limit, especially in a Grand Slam final… He did change the course of the match. It was, in my opinion, maybe unnecessary. We all go through our emotions, especially when you’re fighting for a Grand Slam trophy.”