From Her Tough U.S. Open Loss to Battling Sexism: Serena Williams' Hard Road to Tennis Fame

Serena Williams' journey to becoming a sports icon has not always been easy — including a rough Saturday at the U.S. Open

US Open Tennis Tournament, New York, USA - 29 Aug 2018
Photo: Larry Marano/REX/Shutterstock

Serena Williams‘ journey to becoming a sports icon has not always been easy — including a rough Saturday at the U.S. Open.

The 23-time Grand Slam champion, 36, called out sexism after receiving three violations in the tournament final, which she lost to Naomi Osaka, 20.

Here’s what to know about this weekend’s fraught moment — and Williams’ other career highs and lows.

Drama at the 2018 U.S. Open Final

During the game, Williams was given a violation from chair umpire Carlos Ramos for illegal coaching from her player box in the first set. She told Ramos, “I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose.”

Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams’ coach, said later, “I’m honest, I was coaching,” according to CBS Sports. “I don’t think she looked at me so that’s why she didn’t even think I was.”

“But I was like 100 percent of the coaches in 100 percent of the matches, so we have to stop this hypocritical thing,” Mouratoglou reportedly added. “Sascha [Bajin, Osaka’s coach] was coaching every point, too.”

Williams’ second violation was for breaking her racket, according to The Washington Post.

Williams told Ramos, “You will never, ever, ever be on another court of mine as long as you live. You are the liar. When are you going to give me my apology? You owe me an apology. Say it. Say you’re sorry… And you stole a point from me. You’re a thief, too!” Ramos gave Williams her third violation for verbal abuse.

RELATED VIDEO: Naomi Osaka Talks US Open Win

Williams was subsequently fined $17,000 for the three violations. The tournament referee’s office deducted $10,000 for verbally abusing the umpire, $4,000 for receiving a warning about coaching, and $3,000 for breaking a racket from Williams’ $1.85 million prize money, the Associated Press reported on Sunday.

At a press conference on Saturday night, Williams said the incident would pave the way for future female tennis players.

Williams explained, “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 made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He’s never took a game from a man because they said ‘thief.’ For me it blows my mind. But I’m going to continue to fight for women and to fight for us to have equal [rights].”

Mentioning Alize Cornet, who received a code violation at the U.S. Open for removing her shirt briefly on court to flip it around, Williams continued, “Like Cornet should be able to take her shirt off without getting a fine. This is outrageous. I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and that want to express themselves and they want to be a strong woman and they’re going to be allowed to do that because of today.”

Williams concluded, “Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.” The room broke out into applause.

A Catsuit at the French Open

Williams made her return to tennis — after taking 14 months off to welcome her one-year-old daughter Alexis Olympia — at the French Open in May in a spandex catsuit.

“I feel like a warrior in it, like a warrior princess kind of, [a] queen from Wakanda,” she said at the time. “I’m always living in a fantasy world. I always wanted to be a superhero, and it’s kind of my way of being a superhero. I feel like a superhero when I wear it.”

Williams, who experienced severe health difficulties after birth, added, “It feels like this suit represents all the women that have been through a lot mentally, physically, with their body to come back and have confidence and to believe in themselves.”

Tennis French Open, Paris, France - 29 May 2018

Then, the French Tennis Federation banned her outfit last month. “I think that sometimes we’ve gone too far,” French Tennis Federation President Bernard Giudicelli told the Associated Press. “It will no longer be accepted. One must respect the game and the place.”

Many called Giudicelli’s decision sexist, with Williams responding to the news before the start of the U.S. Open. “Everything’s fine, guys,” she told reporters.

Williams added, “Obviously the grand slams have a right to do what they want to do, but I feel like if and when or if they know that some things are for health reasons then there’s no way that they wouldn’t be okay with it.”

Ilie Nastase’s Controversial Comments

In April 2017, tennis player Ilie Nastase was overheard talking to a reporter about Williams’ unborn baby. “Let’s see what color it has. Chocolate with milk?” Nastase said, according to ESPN.

“It disappoints me to know we live in a society where people like Ilie Nastase can make such racist comments towards myself and unborn child, and sexist comments against my peers,” Williams said in an Instagram post at the time.

Williams added in a TED Talk in Vancouver that month, “For me it’s really important to hold women up. It’s something, these young women they’ll come to the locker room, they’ll want to take pictures with me. For me, I want to be a good leader and a good example for them.”

Williams also discussed dealing with racism in tennis with Common in a 2016 ESPN special The Undefeated in Depth: Serena with Common.

“I definitely was scrutinized because I was confident. I was black and I was confident. And I am black. I am confident. But I would say that I feel like I could be number one,” she said.

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Serena Williams/Instagram

“As for being a black woman and being someone that’s black in America and representing this country when I’m playing and when I’m doing things, I don’t feel any pressure,” she told Common. “I embrace it. I know it sounds weird because I know a lot of people, when they’re in this position, they kind of feel pressure or they kind of feel a different way. But I’ve never felt that way.”

Standing Up to John McEnroe

In June 2017, tennis icon John McEnroe said to NPR that Williams is the “best female player ever — no question.”

“If she played the men’s circuit she’d be like 700 in the world,” he continued. “That doesn’t mean I don’t think Serena is an incredible player. I do, but the reality of what would happen would be… perhaps it’d be a little higher, perhaps it’d be a little lower. And on a given day, Serena could beat some players.”

He added, “But if she had to just play the circuit — the men’s circuit — that would be an entirely different story.”

Williams tweeted, “Dear John, I adore and respect you but please please keep me out of your statements that are not factually based.”

In TIME’s Firsts video series, Williams talked further about overcoming sexism. “It isn’t always easy to be on this stage and play in a tournament and have someone make a comment about your body,” Williams said. “I think the biggest criticism that not only me but my peers go through is, they’ll say something like, we don’t deserve as much prize money as our male counterparts. When you work so hard, you dedicate yourself, it shouldn’t be a double standard.”

Issues at the Indian Wells Tournament

In 2001, Williams said she faced racism at the Indian Wells tournament in California.

Williams wrote about the experience for TIME in 2015. She explained, “As a black tennis player, I looked different. I sounded different. I dressed differently. I served differently. But when I stepped onto the court, I could compete with anyone.”

“As I walked out onto the court, the crowd immediately started jeering and booing,” Williams explained. “In my last match, the semifinals, I was set to play my sister, but Venus had tendonitis and had to pull out. Apparently that angered many fans.”

Serena Williams - 25 Women
Clive Brunskill/Getty

She added, “The false allegations that our matches were fixed hurt, cut and ripped into us deeply. The under­current of racism was painful, confusing and unfair. In a game I loved with all my heart, at one of my most cherished tournaments, I suddenly felt unwelcome, alone and afraid.”

Serena returned to the tournament in 2015, and Venus followed in 2016, The New York Times reported.

A Racist ‘Joke’ from the Head of the Russian Tennis Federation

In October 2014, Shamil Tarpischev, the head of the Russian Tennis Federation, called the Williams sisters the “Williams brothers” and said that “it’s scary when you really look at them,” according to The Washington Post.

Williams responded, “I thought they were very insensitive and extremely sexist as well as racist at the same time. I thought they were in a way bullying.” The Women’s Tennis Association gave Tarpischev a one-year suspension and a $25,000 fine for the comment.

“I didn’t want to offend any athlete with my words,” Tarpischev said in a statement at the time. “I regret that this joke… has garnered so much attention.”

Williams is never down for long, though. She will next have a chance at a Grand Slam title — and at matching Margaret Court’s record of most single’s wins ever, with 24 — in January 2019.

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