At the Women’s Single’s final match of the September 2018 U.S. Open Tennis Championship, more eyes and ears were on the behavior of Serena Williams than those on the tennis itself. On several occasions during the final championship match against Naomi Osaka, Serena was penalized by the umpire, Carlos Ramos. First, her coach was heard giving advice to Serena from the stands. This was followed by a penalty for verbal abuse to the umpire, and later by her breaking her racket after another game lost. Serena felt these were all unfair, and called the umpire a “thief” for robbing her of points.
Many would agree that Serena’s behavior was inappropriate, unnecessary, and disrespectful, not only to the umpire, but to the crowds and to her opponent. Many would argue that what should have been Naomi Osaka’s limelight was also “stolen” by Serena Williams’s behavior. But what was perhaps just one of many comments, but this one by a well-known tennis champ and women’s activist, Billy-Jean King, contains a term that needs to be addressed: hysteria. Ms. King, as part of her commentary, noted: “When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it,” she continued, echoing Williams’s point that male players are never penalized for outbursts — even the profane ones. “When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ and there are no repercussions. Thank you, Serena Williams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same.”
Now regardless of whether or not you think Serena Williams was in the wrong, or Carlos Ramos was in the wrong, let’s look at the word that Billy-Jean King used, as it’s not a word ever used to describe a man’s behavior: hysterical. Well, a joke can be so funny, it’s hysterical, but even used this way, it implies loss of control. Aside from that, hysteria is a word reserved for the ladies in the room. Hysteria originates from the Greek hystera, or “womb.” In psychology, hysteria refers to “a neurotic condition particular to women and thought to be caused by a dysfunction of the uterus.” Perhaps treatment for hysteria would thus be hysterectomy? I think not. But the roots of the word are, indeed, based on the notion that a woman’s reproductive parts, menstrual cycle, and all things related to female hormones can trigger erratic emotional outbursts. John McEnroe had notorious behavior on the tennis court, but he was not hysterical.
In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association, recognizing the sexist connotation of the word, removed ‘hysteria’ as a clinical term, changing it to conversion disorder. The notion of hysteria is that one’s behavior is out of control, or is being controlled by the uterus. Even when laughter is based on something hysterical, this laughter is out of one’s control.
I am sad for Naomi Osaka, who lost her chance to shine. I am sad for Serena, who’s behavior, not tennis, is now the focus of her game. I am sad that great tennis is now a platform for anger, more sexism than we’ve seen since Billy-Jean King beat Bobby Riggs, and more personal digs on behavior and even attire than personal praise on athletic prowess. Maybe one day we’ll be back to just great tennis, and we’ll drop the hysteria.