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Rules are rules, in tennis matches and life

I used to be a passable tennis player. But burnout, a college coach and foot injuries caused me to give it up. Now I follow it mostly from a distance, when there’s a good match or a particularly interesting story line.

We got both with the just-concluded U.S. Open. If you like seeing high-level competitors go at it, track down the Rafael Nadal-Dominic Thiem match, won by Nadal 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7, 7-6. If you want to see a high-level competitor go at it with a ref, watch the women’s final.

Serena Williams is amazing and has been for all of the 21st century. I have no doubt she will break the women’s record for winning the most majors and she deserves all the accolades she’s received.

But she also deserves the penalties that the chair umpire levied in Saturday’s final, won by Naomi Osaka. That doesn’t seem to be the prevailing opinion, but I think the argument has been turned upside-down.

Williams is right, absolutely right, when she says she should not be held to a different standard than male players. But the argument that she should not have been penalized is just as wrong.

The right answer is: Any and all players should be penalized for breaking the rules, even if the rules don’t necessarily make sense. (Post-tennis, I took up golf, so I am very familiar with sports rules that don’t make sense.)

Was Williams the victim of a sexist ump? Quite possibly — it seems men have said far worse and done far worse with no consequences when Carlos Ramos was in the chair. But we turn the very idea of rules on its head when we suggest that Williams, too, should have suffered no consequences.

Her coach acknowledges he was coaching from the stands, which is apparently a common occurrence and rarely penalized. But it is a rules violation. So is smashing your racket on the court and so is yelling at the umpire and calling him a “thief.”

The argument should not be “Why was Williams penalized?” It should be “Why weren’t the men?” Yes, tennis authorities should ensure that women are treated fairly. They would do that best by ensuring that the rules are followed by everyone, male and female alike.

The loser in this all was not Williams, but Osaka, whose first victory in a major tournament — against her idol — was tarnished by the uproar on the court and the ignoramuses in the stands who booed during the awards presentation. Both women ended up in tears.

This is not a sports page and, believe it or not, this is not a sports column. This episode is a metaphor for what happens all too often in our world today, with too many people — from our president on down (or make that up) — thinking society’s rules shouldn’t apply to them.

You don’t like the rules? Then work to change them, rather than smashing your racket or tweeting a bullying message. The playing field is level only if the rules are applied to everyone equally. If they aren’t, we all lose the match.

Bob Hunter is associate editor of the Mail Tribune. Reach him at

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