This is an unusual post. It is entirely happy. No exhortations. No examples of what not to do. Just uplifting good news.
Tennis fans were watching the US Open this weekend. One of the most anticipated Saturday matches was between two young women: Naomi Osaka of Japan and American Coco Gauff. Coco is 15 and adored by fans for her upbeat demeanor and her fearless and aggressive playing. Osaka is 21, also adored and ranked number 1 in the world. They played their match in Arthur Ashe stadium. Seating 23,700, it is the largest tennis venue in the world and it was packed with excited fans on Saturday.
Despite the massive build up, the match was over quickly as Osaka won easily 6-3, 6-0. But that is when the moments that transcended the match began. During the match, the crowd had loudly supported Gauff, not Osaka. Osaka broke with tradition by inviting Gauff to stay on court for the post match interview:
“It was kind of instinct because when I shook her hand I saw she was kind of tearing up a little, then it reminded me how young she is,” Osaka said. She said she figured that “normal people don’t watch the press conferences unless they’re fan-fans,” and so, “I was thinking it would be nice for her to address the people who watched her play.” And: “For me, I just thought about what I wanted her to feel leaving the court. I wanted her to have her head high and not walk off sad.” And: “I feel like the amount of media on her now is kind of insane, so I just want her to take care of herself.” The Washington Post
Normally, the loser leaves the court quietly and alone to work out her emotions in the locker room. Gauff, who had certainly taken a huge emotional tumble from her pre-match excitement and jitters to post-match sobs, was in no shape for an interview, but with help from Osaka she did stay and was able to feel the crowds’ appreciation and affection despite her loss.
Tennis is a strange sport as the clutches of coaches and family members that surround the players are not allowed to communicate with them during a match. But for the support or antagonism of often partial crowds, a player is alone on the court, fighting emotional ups and downs, trying to correct problems, redirect energy. Osaka’s decision to comfort and support Gauff, was her own. No one suggested it to her. It wasn’t a publicity stunt.
Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams had a similar moment.
Osaka herself had had a strange and memorable win at last years’ US Open when her opponent Serena Willams suffered point and game deductions from rulings by the chair umpire. Whether the rulings were right or wrong, it was was ugly and upsetting. Despite Williams’ attempt to support Osaka and diminish her own anger, the incident took most of the joy away from Osaka’s first major win. Again, everything that happened after the match was figured out by the players alone. Both players walked away with heightened esteem for one another.
Sportsmanship (is there a gender-neutral version of this word?) is highly valued in tennis, although there have been and continue to be many memorable bad-boys whose behavior is cringe-worthy. Bad-girl players are very rare. There are rules against bad language, gestures and smashing rackets. These days fines are handed out with increasing frequency. It is possible that fans, as in hockey, enjoy the outbursts and expend enthusiastic energy on boos and cat calls.
One final observation: this weekend and last year, all the players involved in these rarest of rare moments of support and generosity are women of color. Tennis has not always been supportive or welcoming of black players or women despite the recognition of Arthur Ashe and, most recently, Althea Gibson at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. What is wonderful is that these women – all three of them – have outshown everyone in their generous and supportive behavior toward one another. It gives hope in these contentious and difficult times. The sisterhood is powerful.
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