Australian cartoonist Mark Knight has defended a depiction of Serena Williams which was published by Melbourne's Herald Sun newspaper after it was labelled as racist.

Knight published his reaction to Sunday's U.S. Open women's final - and in doing so, summoned the vile imagery that was largely popularized during the Jim Crow era, the Washington Post reports.

In the new cartoon, which mocks the heated exchanges between runner-up Serena Williams and chair umpire Carlos Ramos, Knight depicts the 23-time Grand Slam champion as a child throwing a tantrum as the umpire says to eventual champion Naomi Osaka, "Can you just let her win?"

In doing so, Knight draws facial features reflecting the dehumanizing Jim Crow caricatures so common in the 19th and 20th centuries. Knight's cartoon conjures up a range of such caricatures that were branded on memorabilia and popularized on stage and screen of the era, including the minstrel-show character Topsy born out of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," as well as the title character in 1899's "Little Black Sambo."

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Such caricatures were parodied in the '60s by underground comix creator R. Crumb through his character Angelfood McSpade. Spike Lee - who, while attending an earlier U.S. Open round, hailed Williams' greatness as on par with Muhammad Ali's - created a powerful montage of such racist pop-culture caricatures in his 2000 film "Bamboozled."

US sports writer Julie DiCaro objected to the cartoon, writing "Where was this cartoon for all the men who have broken their rackets over the years?".

But her reply drew a swift response from Knight. "Well Julie here's a cartoon I drew a few days before when Australian male tennis player Kyrgios at the US Open was behaving badly," he wrote. "Don't bring gender into it when it's all about behaviour. I'll accept your apology in writing."

Knight later explained his thinking in an interview on Melbourne's 3AW radio, news.com.au reports.

"The world's gone crazy," Knight said. "It's a cartoon about poor behaviour. It's nothing to do with race.

"I drew this cartoon on Monday night, I saw the world's greatest tennis player spit the dummy.

"She's great to draw, she's a powerful figure, she's strongly built.

"I'm sorry it's been taken by social media and distorted so much.

"I've tried to reply to these people but they don't listen."

Herald Sun editor Damon Johnston backed Knight. "A champion tennis player had a mega tantrum on the world stage, and Mark's cartoon depicted that," he said. "It had nothing to do with gender or race."

Broadcaster Neil Mitchell also supported Knight. "They are wrong," Mitchell said on 3AW.

"I will say when I looked at the cartoon, it didn't even cross my mind it was meant to be racially offensive. It was a sports bully, throwing a tantrum."

In Sunday's women's final, Ramos charged Williams with three violations, including a game violation, as Osaka - the 20-year-old rising star who is of Japanese and Haitian descent - went on to defeat Williams in straight sets.

Knight's sendup of that match is being criticized for how he caricatured both finalists. His Osaka figure - given her light skin, thin frame and entirely blond hair - looks like a small white woman, some critics say.

Author J.K. Rowling wrote on Twitter: "Well done on reducing one of the greatest sportswomen alive to racist and sexist tropes and turning a second great sportswoman into a faceless prop."

And British journalist Charles Thomson tweeted: "In 100 years' time, this cartoon will be viewed no differently than old images of Jim Crow, or the newspaper cartoons drawn of Jack Johnson. Mark Knight has just drawn his way into the history books."

Thomson's words note how Williams's athletic forebears - such great black champions of the early 20th century as boxers Jack Johnson and Joe Louis - were often depicted in cartoons of the era via Sambo caricatures.

Knight responded on Twitter to a user who accused him of not treating male players the same way: "Don't bring gender into it when it's all about behavior."

In early August, for a cartoon about train-station safety in the Australian state of Victoria, Knight also faced ire for how he drew faceless black figures fighting in the background. Backlash against the image included disgust from Melbourne politician Rohan Leppert, who wrote: "The racist vilification of Melburnians from the Herald Sun continues apace. Utterly shameful."

Knight has not responded to The Washington Post's request for comment.

- With news.com.au