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Passing the torch

November 1, 2019

I’m not a tennis fan, nor do I proclaim to be. But I do have a mother who is absolutely crazy about the sport. I have become numb to the late night and early morning shrills that come around tournament season. And I have become accustomed to fervently investing in the success of the few Black players in the game as they occupy the TV screen day in and day out for months at a time in my household.

While the contributions of Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson, Zina Garrison and Lori McNeil shouldn’t go unrecognized, it has been all about the Williams sisters in my lifetime. From humble beginnings on the public courts of Compton, the Williams sisters ran through every boundary and jumped through every hurdle that was meant to keep them off the biggest stage. They’ve imposed themselves—and their blackness—on an American tennis scene that quite frankly still operates with a certain “distance” from the world outside of white affluence.

While Serena has set herself apart as the undeniable greatest of all time, Sloane Stephens, Naomi Osaka and, most recently, Cori Gauff have expanded the small circle of Black superstars from a couple to a few. Their presence in this arena has been a delight for Black tennis fans throughout the country. Not just because of our investment in seeing them succeed, but also because, until now, it seemed as though Black solidarity in predominantly white sports was taboo.

It may feel like forever ago, but it has only been a year since Osaka defeated Serena in the final of the 2018 U.S. Open in what was probably the most heartbreaking victory in sports history.

“I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose,” Serena told the umpire, demanding an apology for accusations that she was receiving coaching during the match. The umpire proceeded to take a game away from Serena after she called him a thief, an offense that typically doesn’t even merit a warning in the men’s game. (If you don’t believe me, just Google the name Nick Kyrgios.) Both women broke down in tears—Serena feeling as though she had stolen an incredible moment from Osaka, and Osaka feeling as though she had been complicit in the “unconscious bias” that the Williams sisters have been subjected to throughout their careers.

The match was supposed to be a passing-of-the-torch moment from a champion that has come to embody what it means to be more than an athlete to a young tennis prodigy whose father has openly admitted to following the Williams family’s blueprint as he coached his daughters to the professional level.

Instead, it was another reminder that looking different still means being treated differently in the game of tennis—even for a 23-time Grand Slam champion. While both players look back on the moment with a degree of regret, a tradition of explicit sisterhood and support was set in stone that day.

In an open letter, Serena shared the text messages she exchanged with Osaka some weeks after the match. “I would love the chance to live that moment over again. I am, was, and will always be happy for you and supportive of you,” she wrote. “I would never, ever want the light to shine away from another female, specifically another Black female athlete.”

After the dust settled from the U.S. Open, the world began to ask, who is Naomi Osaka? The answer: an incredibly poised, extremely soft-spoken and endearingly awkward young woman who doesn’t particularly like the spotlight. She offers up little about her personal life. She has said little about the racism she encounters in the U.S. or the stigma she has received as a “Hafu,” or mixed-race person in Japan. At the outset of her stardom, I couldn’t tell if she was just happy with trying to transcend her blackness, like some Black superstars that have come before.

Looking back, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

At just 15 years old, Cori Guaff made history as the youngest person ever to reach the main draw of a grand slam. Her incredible performance at Wimbledon earned her a wild card into the main draw at the U.S. Open. And before the tournament even started, the media and fans were already eyeing a potential matchup between the then-world number one Osaka and the teenage sensation now just known as “Coco.”

The reigning champion prevailed in the match, ending an incredible breakout year for Gauff. The battle on the court was captivating, but the moment the two shared after the match is something I’ll always remember. Osaka invited a clearly emotional and overwhelmed Gauff to participate in the post-match on-court interview with her. Gauff almost repeated Serena’s words from the year before. “I don’t want to take this moment away from her,” she told the crowd, who had clearly been pulling for the 15-year-old all match.

As Black women, it seems they all have an understanding that their moments in the spotlight are rare and coveted, and they wouldn’t dare take them away from one another. That was amazing to see, but it’s not the moment I am referring to.

After Gauff finished speaking, Osaka gave her a long, sisterly embrace, almost to say “welcome to the family.” Osaka turned to Gauff’s parents and gathered herself just long enough to say, “I remember I used to see you guys training in the same place as us, and for me the fact that both of us made it, I think it’s incredible.” Media outlets called it a show of sportsmanship, but as someone who grew up playing a predominantly white sport, I knew it was much more than that.

There is something distinctly comforting and empowering when you can look across the court or the field, through a sea of families that look nothing like you and know nothing of what you’re going through, and see just one that does. It makes the grind of traveling and training, of being an outsider looking in, of scrapping for a sliver of the recognition you deserve, just a little bit easier. Osaka’s ability to recognize that and her willingness to proclaim it in front of the world will have a lasting impact on me.

There is a burgeoning tradition of Black solidarity in women’s tennis and the sporting world at large, and Naomi Osaka is a leader often overlooked.


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One comment:

  1. Carolyn Bryant, Bowdoin Friend says:

    Thank you so much to Julius Long for his perceptive article “Passing the Torch.” It was especially helpful for someone who doesn’t follow tennis that closely to read this nuanced description of these tennis greats and Black solidarity in women’s tennis

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