SOUTH PORTLAND — Talk to Lynn Welch about the imbroglio involving Serena Williams and chair umpire Carlos Ramos in the women’s final of the U.S. Open tennis tournament earlier this month, and you quickly realize why Welch rose so quickly and lasted so long as an arbiter at the highest ranks of professional tennis.

Welch is a South Portland native who sat in the umpire’s chair for 12 U.S. Open finals. She is familiar with both Ramos, whom she described as a mentor, and Williams, who joined the pro tour around the same time that Welch became the first U.S. woman to earn her gold badge, the highest rank possible for a tennis official.

“I felt badly for everybody,” Welch said. “No one wanted it to mushroom up like it did.”

If somehow you missed it, the 36-year-old Williams was seeking her 24th Grand Slam singles title – a total that would tie Margaret Court for the most in history – at the National Tennis Center in Queens, New York. Instead, 20-year-old Naomi Osaka won 6-2, 6-4 in a match that unraveled in a bizarre second set.

Ramos cited Williams for three code violations, with escalating penalties. First came a warning for coaching, then a point for breaking her racket in frustration, and finally Williams was docked a game for verbal abuse after she called Ramos a liar and a thief.

The match ended with both Williams and Osaka choking back sobs and brushing away tears. Williams tried to quiet the boos raining down from the packed stands and comfort Osaka, who grew up idolizing her opponent. At the postmatch press conference, Williams spoke of fighting for women’s rights and women’s equality and claimed Ramos would have been more tolerant to similar behavior from a man.

Instantly, the debate was on. Defenders of Williams raised charges of sexism and racism. Defenders of Ramos lauded his stand against boorish behavior. Everyone seemed to have a strong opinion.

Billie Jean King wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post defending Williams: “What was supposed to be a memorable moment for tennis … turned into another example of people in positions of power abusing that power.”

Martina Navratilova wrote an op-ed for the New York Times defending Ramos: “We cannot measure ourselves by what we think we should also be able to get away with. In fact, this is the sort of behavior that no one should be engaging in on the court.”

Welch watched the match on television and has watched the replay as well. Now 62, she sold her condominium in Hilton Head, South Carolina, five years ago and moved back to South Portland to care for her father, John, who died in 2016 at age 94.

A three-time state champion in both singles and doubles (with Betty Tupper) at South Portland High, Welch went on to play tennis and basketball at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. Eventually she became a teaching pro, moved to Hilton Head and got into officiating at age 35 at the behest of a friend.

A soothing voice, thick skin and emotional equilibrium helped Welch rise through the ranks. She umpired all four Grand Slams, including eight French Opens, 15 Australian Opens, 19 Wimbledons and 20 U.S. Opens, including the 2002 women’s final between Serena and her sister, Venus. Players and umpires gain a level of familiarity through seeing each other a dozen or so times a year.

“You have to remain professional, but I’m still a human being,” said Welch, who remembered a light-hearted encounter with Richard Williams, father of the sisters and their first coach, after a Serena match in Miami.

“I was bad,” Richard Williams said to Welch, with mock regret.

“What did you do now?” Welch asked.

“I was coaching,” he replied. “But she didn’t pay attention anyway. She wasn’t even looking.”

Welch chuckled politely and said, “I’m going to have to watch you a little closer next time.”

Coaching – forbidden in Grand Slam events – was at the heart of the U.S. Open controversy. A hand gesture from Patrick Mouratoglou, who later admitted attempting to signal Williams to come to net more, was interpreted by Ramos as coaching and he issued a warning. Williams said her coach’s gesture was simply thumbs-up support, and that she would rather lose than cheat.

Player and umpire seemed to have an amicable discussion and the match proceeded. Not until later, when Williams smashed her racket in frustration after double-faulting twice when she had been on the verge of going up 4-1 in the second set, did a point penalty kick in for a second code violation.

However, the penalty wasn’t apparent until the start of the next game, when Osaka was serving with a 15-0 advantage.

“It’s hard,” Welch said. “The crowd is massive. I mean, 25,000 people and you’ve got all this roaring and boos and confusion with scores.”

Williams demanded an apology from Ramos, contending he stole a point from her. “You’re a thief,” she told him.

Ramos, never losing his cool, later announced another a code violation when Williams continue to argue, costing her a game. Trailing 3-5, she managed to hold serve before Osaka closed out the match.

Social media wasted no time in weighing in, with several players defending Williams. On Twitter, Andy Roddick called it the “worst refereeing I’ve ever seen” and James Blake said he has said much worse without penalty: “I’ve also been given a ‘soft warning’ by the ump where they tell you knock it off or I will have to give you a violation. He should have at least given her that courtesy.”

Welch has considered all angles of the controversy, empathizing with both Ramos and Williams. We are not robots, she said of her colleagues who administer the rules and oversee the matches.

“Everybody has a different feel about it,” she said, pausing several seconds. “Hopefully … you know … I feel like I might have done the soft warning, and then if she kept at it, I’d go in with the game.”

This is not criticism of Ramos or the way he handled the match, she said, stressing that he followed the rules.

The controversy continues to simmer. Umpires have threatened a boycott of Williams’ matches because they know and respect Ramos.

Of course, few sporting events avoid controversy when officials become part of the narrative.

Welch recounted years ago when her parents were watching a televised tennis match that she was umpiring.

“My mother would say, ‘We watched the match and nothing happened.’ The TV camera didn’t go on you once,” Welch said. “We just saw your hand come down (to shake) at the end. I’d say, ‘Mom, that’s a good thing.’ You don’t want the limelight on you.”

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: GlennJordanPPH

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