Tennis became my favorite sport as a teen. Being a child of the mountains in the ’70s and ’80s, athletic options were fairly limited for girls. The equal opportunity of Title IX had yet to make it to my hometown. I discovered tennis on TV. I loved the international flavor of competition, the sportsmanship most players showed (I was never a John McEnroe fan), and admittedly, the cute outfits the women wore. There was no team on which I could play, but my Dad brought out some old wooden racquets, and our family would hit around on local courts.
My high school did have a boys’ team, and even though I kept asking for a girls’ team, no coach cared enough to make it happen. The tennis coach asked me to be the manager for the boys’ team. He even gave me a Letter as a Senior for tennis. (Yes, I achieved an athletic Letter, even though I never played one point in a match.) He was a kind man – I was very organized and took care of a number of things he was too tired to care about – and I guess that was his way of thanking me. I haven’t kept much from high school, but I kept that letter – it’s on a cardigan sweater, with my academic Letter on the opposite side.
I am glued to the tv, and now my computer, and even phone, when the Grand Slams occur 4 times a year. A few years back, my friend Tracey and I went to the US Open for a few days. It was definitely some of the best days of my life.
Saturday’s evening match at the US Open was decidely memorable. Teen phenom, 15 year old Coco Gauff, played defending champ, 21 year old Naomi Osaka. Gauff made a good run at Wimbledon, taking out her idol Venus Williams along the way. Yet, Osaka’s game was too much for young Gauff, and the girl understandably found herself in tears at the end of the match.
TV matches always offer a quick interview with the winner. The other player normally makes a quick exit to the locker room, letting the winner bask in the glow for a few minutes on their own. The loser oftentimes just wants to get off the court and go cry or be angry without thousands or millions watching them. Yet, Saturday night was special. The video above shows Osaka comforting Gauff, and even encouraging her to be interviewed with her. This move was not only unusual – it was unheard of. Commentators were floored by the compassion and generosity.
These two young women of color displayed dedication, extremely hard work and effort, kindness, respect, and resilience. Venus and Serena have paved a way for young women of color to make their way in the tennis world, and beyond. In the midst of a society where white supremacists are still quite prominent, and quieter racism is a daily thing, it took far more than just athletic ability to make a name (and even the greatest name for Serena) in one of the whitest of sports in the US.
Osaka and Coco understand that making one’s way in the world, especially in a world dominated by patriarchy and racism, takes courage, cooperation, and community. The mutual respect and support displayed Saturday night provides a powerful message for all of us. When we support others, and lift them up, especially if they are seen as our “opponent,” our world will be all the better. And we ourselves will be all the better for it. It makes us better and stronger people to show compassion.
I look forward to seeing many more matches with Gauff and Osaka in the future. I enjoy their playing ability, but I appreciate who they are as leaders and role models even more.