Instead of having the greatest triumph of her career, Serena Williams had her ugliest moment.
And she has herself to blame.
Williams melted down in stunning fashion at the US Open final Saturday afternoon with a tantrum over repeated code violations. It diminished her, helped cost her a record 24th Grand Slam title and, worst of all, robbed Naomi Osaka of the spotlight she so richly deserved for winning her first title.
Williams likes to pride herself on being a role model, the elder stateswoman not just of her game but in all of sports. Yet as Williams repeatedly berated chair umpire Carlos Ramos, calling him a thief and demanding he apologize to her, she looked anything but.
You can believe that Ramos overreached in assessing Williams her second and third penalties, which cost her a point and then a game in the second set. You can also believe that Williams overreacted, losing control of her emotions in a match in which she was already frustrated.
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Williams did redeem herself after the match, imploring the crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium to stop booing and celebrate Osaka’s win.
“Let’s make this the best moment we can,” she said. “Let’s give everyone the credit where credit’s due.”
By then, however, it was too late. She needed to be bigger during the match. She needed to be better.
She needed to handle herself like the champion she is.
To be fair, Williams was right to be angry about the initial code violation, for coaching from the stands. It was assessed in the second game of the second set after Ramos saw Patrick Mouratoglou put up both his thumbs and move his hands back and forth, as if telling Williams to go to the net.
While Mouratoglou acknowledged after the match that he was coaching, the same could be said for every other coach on the tour. Nobody adheres to the rule, and umpires rarely — if ever — call it.
It’s also not even clear that Williams realized what Mouratoglou was doing. She told Ramos right away she doesn’t use coaching, and said she thought Mouratoglou was simply giving her a thumbs-up.
“Just because I look at my box — it may have looked like I was getting coaching, but I’m telling you, that’s not what I do,” said Williams, who said she and Mouratoglou don’t even have hand signals. “I said, `I’d rather lose than have to cheat to win. I don’t need to cheat to win. I’ve won enough. That’s never been something I’ve ever done.’ ”
Williams also was right in saying men on tour have done and said far worse and not been penalized. Dominic Thiem smashed his racket earlier in the US Open, and was celebrated because he gave it to a fan. How many times has Nick Kyrgios cursed at umpires? Just this year?
Yet Williams was given a second code violation for smashing her racket, costing her a point. When Ramos gave her a third violation, for continuing to berate him, it cost her a game.
“I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things,” Williams said after the match. “For him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He never took a game from a man because he said `thief.’
“I just feel like the fact I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and wants to express themselves and they want to be a strong woman,” Williams added. “And they’re going to be allowed to do that because of today.
“Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.”
But while Williams might have been right in her indignation, she was flat out wrong in how she expressed it. And just because other people do it, doesn’t make it right.
Had this been the first time Williams behaved like this, maybe it would be viewed differently. But it wasn’t. Williams lost the 2009 US Open final when she was assessed a point penalty on match point for threatening to shove a ball down a line judge’s throat.
It’s understandable that Williams’ emotions were high Saturday. She has overcome so much in the past year, and winning her 24th Grand Slam title to tie Margaret Court for the all-time record would have been the exclamation point on a comeback that’s been as inspiring as it is amazing.
But that doesn’t excuse her meltdown.
Williams is a tremendous champion, and will rightly be remembered as such. But on this day, she fell short.
In more ways than one.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.