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Why did we treat Novak Djokovic so differently to Serena Williams?

An outburst of anger resulted in Novak Djokovic's disqualification from the 2020 US Open. The incident brought back memories of a similar situation involving Serena Williams from 2018.

Why did we treat Novak Djokovic so differently to Serena Williams?
Image Source: Getty/ (L) (Photo by Graham Denholm) (R) (Photo by Dylan Buell)

Novak Djokovic, the 17-time grand slam winner, was disqualified from the United States Open after hitting a line judge with a ball. Djokovic, who was a favorite to win the tournament in what has been described as the most bizarre season ever, had an on-court outburst. After losing a serve to his Spanish opponent Pablo Carreno Bust, the player struck a line umpire in the throat by hitting a ball in her direction in a fit of anger. Though he has since apologized via a post on Instagram, the incident brought back memories of a similar outburst from Serena Williams. The media, however, had different takes on the two incredibly similar situations.



For those who do not recall, Williams came under fire in 2018 when she was charged with three code violations by chair umpire Carlos Ramos and proceeded to bust her racket before calling Ramos a thief. Unlike Djokovic, she did not hurt anyone else in the vicinity. Many even claimed that her rage was valid; Alex Abad-Santos writing for Vox states, "Williams was denied her chance to mount a comeback at the US Open just one year after having a baby and fighting for her own life after childbirth. Meanwhile, Osaka was denied a chance to defeat Williams on her own terms." Both incidents involved athletes expressing rage at the outcome of events. How the media choose to spin both stories, however, could not have been more different.



This dichotomy in reporting could not have been better highlighted than by Johanna Fuentes, the Head of Global Communications at Warner Bros. She took to Twitter to post screenshots of two articles and their headlines side by side. The first screenshot featured an article in The New York Post about Djokovic's disqualification. In the second, was an article about Williams' outburst from two years ago. The former headline read, "Novak Djokovic's excessive punishment is terrible for US Open," while the latter headline read, "Serena acted like a sore loser." The kicker? Both stories were written by the same author for the same news outlet.





So what's going on? As was argued two years ago, sexism and racism are still alive and well in the sport of tennis (and, of course, in the reportage of sport as well). Following the match in 2018, Williams said she felt she was held to a different, perhaps higher, standard than men tennis players who have done similar or even worse things. Not only is this true in tennis officiating, but in news reporting as well. "To lose a game for saying [that Ramos is a thief] is not fair,” she stated during the match. "There’s a lot of men out here that have said a lot of things, and because they are men, that doesn’t happen." Her experience, in comparison to Djokovic's, is more than enough evidence that she spoke truth to power.



Apart from seven-time grand slam champion John McEnroe, who claimed Djokovic would "be the bad guy the rest of his career," there was little criticism of the player. In fact, news outlets have chosen intentionally to focus on his "pain" or subsequent "kind gestures." A headline from CNN reads, "Novak Djokovic is 'in pain' after US Open incident, says former coach." Another from Essentially Sports: "Novak Djokovic Shows Kind Gesture After US Open 2020 Disqualification." Perhaps it is time for tennis—and the media—to finally address its prejudice problem.


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