Serena Williams holds the second-most Grand Slam singles titles of all-time, and the most in the modern era. She once held the No. 1 ranking for 186 consecutive weeks. She has earned hundreds of millions of dollars in prize money and endorsements. Her story of coming from Compton and competing with and against her sister, Venus, to become one of the most dominant athletes of all time is legendary.
Last week, in the U.S. Open final, a new chapter in the story was written.
Williams was facing Naomi Osaka, a 20-year-old native of Japan, appearing in her first Grand Slam final. It was a dream come true for Osaka, whom the New York Times reports wrote a book report about Williams in third grade.
Osaka won the opening set easily, 6-2. In the second set things began to unravel. It began when chair umpire Carlos Ramos issued Williams a warning for receiving coaching, a violation. (Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, later admitted he was, indeed, coaching.)
Williams was indignant at what she perceived as an accusation of cheating. “I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose,” she told Ramos.
A few games later, after losing a crucial break point, Williams threw her racket down on the court, breaking it. An automatic code violation. Because of the prior violation for coaching, Williams was penalized and Osaka was awarded a point.
When Williams realized she had been penalized, she grew incensed. For the next several minutes, she verbally assaulted the chair umpire, calling him a liar, a thief, demanding apologies, and telling him he would never umpire a match of hers again.
Enough was enough. Ramos issued a violation for verbal abuse, awarding a full game to Osaka. Eventually, Osaka would win the decisive second set 6-4, though her championship was marred by jeers and boos from the crowd.
On the court and in her post-match press conference, Serena blamed sexism for how she was treated. “I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff,” she said. “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 want to be a strong woman. They’re going to be allowed to do that because of today.”
Former tennis great Billie Jean King agreed, writing, “women have a right…to speak out against injustice.”
Another former tennis champion, Martina Navratilova, offered a different view. Writing in the New York Times, she said, “I don’t believe it’s a good idea to apply a standard of “If men can get away with it, women should be able to, too.” Rather, I think the question we have to ask ourselves is this: What is the right way to behave to honor our sport and to respect our opponents?”
Navratilova continued: “There have been many times when I was playing that I wanted to break my racket into a thousand pieces. Then I thought about the kids watching. And I grudgingly held on to that racket.”
Injustice is rampant in our world. Christians have a divine mandate to seek justice for all persons, especially the weak and marginalized.
But, increasingly, we are faced with the question of how to respond when we are the victims of injustice. America is becoming a place in which biblical Christianity is increasingly at odds with the norms of society. We see faithful believers facing this tension at school, work, and in the day to day life of their community, from children’s sports teams to programs at the local library.
One possible response is like that of Serena Williams. We can lash out, embrace a victim mentality, throw epithets at our oppressors, and demand our rights.
Another is more like that of Navratilova, in which we recognize injustice where it exists and seek to be the solution, while also recognizing where our own sinfulness may be at work. This approach involves holding ourselves to a biblical standard no matter what others are doing, knowing that, from an eternal perspective, our witness is more important than our rights.
Throughout scripture, we find examples of Christians who suffered persecution for their faith, like Daniel, John the Baptist, and Peter. I encourage you to go back and read their stories. Take note of their strength, dignity, and peace.
President and Executive Director