A Special Moment Between Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff

At yesterday’s U.S. Open third-round match, Naomi Osaka — the number one ranked women’s tennis player in the world — beat 15-year old prodigy, Coco Gauff, in straight sets (6-3, 6-0). It was totally expected, and most sports outlets didn’t even bother covering this early round match.

Then Osaka did something wonderful. She asked Gauff to join her for her post-match interview, which is generally reserved for the winner of the match. As Soraya Nadia McDonald of The Undefeated wrote:

“Naomi asked me to do the on-court interview with her and I said no, because I knew I was going to cry the whole time, but she encouraged me to do it,” Gauff said during the televised interview, still wiping away tears. “It was amazing. She did amazing and I’m going to learn a lot from this match. She’s been so sweet to me.”

What a moment — so raw, so genuine, so vulnerable and sweet, made even more so by the fact that Osaka, too, began to choke up as she made a point to praise Gauff’s parents, Candi and Corey.

“You guys raised an amazing player,” Osaka, 21, said. “I remember I used to see you guys — I don’t wanna cry — I remember I used to see you guys training in the same place as us. For me, the fact that both of us made it, and we’re both still working as hard as we can, I think it’s incredible. I think you guys are amazing, and I think, Coco, you’re amazing.”

As McDonald later wrote:

But Osaka’s actions did something else, too. Osaka took the love her hero, Serena Williams, expressed for her in an essay in the July issue of Harper’s Bazaar and paid it forward. Intentional or not, black girl magic became black girl solidarity. And it happened at the site of the ugliest championship finish in US Open history, when Osaka defeated Williams a year ago to win her first Grand Slam, only to have the event marred by boos directed toward official Carlos Ramos.

In a text message to Osaka, which Williams published in her essay, Williams wrote: “I would never, ever want the light to shine away from another female, specifically another black female athlete. I can’t wait for your future, and believe me I will always be watching as a big fan!”

Louisa Thomas of The New Yorker added (hat tip to Mark Szpakowski for the link):

What Osaka did after the match has been called an example of sportsmanship, but that doesn’t do it justice. It wasn’t a nice word of encouragement as she and Gauff hugged at net, or a few gracious comments as she addressed the crowd. It was an act of compassion. It was also unusual, and a little awkward, and brave, in its way. It probably mattered that Osaka had been there herself, standing in Arthur Ashe Stadium in tears the year before, although under very different circumstances, after a controversial coaching violation was issued to her opponent, Serena Williams. It certainly mattered that Osaka was one of the few people alive who knew what it was like to be a young woman of color at this level of tennis in 2019, an outsider in a traditionally clubby sport; to be a young person surrounded by people who want to make money off of her (and wanting to make money herself); to feel the intensity of the spotlight—warmed by it one moment, burned by it the next. She knew what it was like to lose a big match. She knew the tears. She knew the lonely shower. More than once during the U.S. Open, she has said that something about Gauff reminds her of herself. There was a protective solidarity in that moment.

But it was also generous, and it included everyone: the crowd, though much of it had not been cheering for Osaka during the match, and also people hundreds or thousands of miles away watching at home. (I felt it, certainly.) In 2019, kindness feels like a political act, perhaps especially in the context of competition. I thought, as I watched, of something that Gauff had said about Osaka: “I think she shows us how to compete, and the way to be off the court, too.”

Pretty great things happening from some pretty great leaders in women’s tennis right now.

As a little bonus, The New York Times Magazine recently did a great profile on Venus Williams, in many ways the matron of this current generation of exceptional black women tennis players.

“If—”, by Rudyard Kipling

In his excellent book, Coach Wooden and Me, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar mentions one of John Wooden’s favorite poems, “If—,” by Rudyard Kipling:

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Wooden recites the second stanza of the poem to Kareem, then explains:

“The lines I’m referring to, Lewis, are that Triumph and Disaster are the same. They’re both impostors because they are momentary. More important is becoming a man of convictions. Lasting joy comes from that.”

—p90

Sidenote: Wooden, Kareem, and a whole slew of legendary NBA centers filmed a series of commercials for Reebok in 1993, featuring then-rookie Shaquille O’Neal. In one of those commercials, they recite the poem to Shaq. I couldn’t find the one with Kareem on YouTube, but I did find this version, which is nice because the person reciting the last line is Shaq’s father.

Lessons from my Zen Dentist

I’ve been seeing my dentist, Dr. Robert Ho, for about ten years now. He’s in my neighborhood, he teaches at UCSF, and he takes great care of my teeth. I might be the only person in the world who looks forward to seeing his dentist. He is a craftsman, and for that reason alone, I value him. He also tells engaging stories and dispenses warm, timely wisdom every time I see him. I’ve taken to calling him my Zen dentist.

At today’s session, he told me that he was feeling stressed about a recognition he had recently received from his peers that would require him to give a five-minute speech in front of 500 people. In classic fashion, he wanted to express his gratitude while also deflecting attention. As he skillfully cleaned my teeth, he asked me if he could share what he was thinking of saying and get my feedback. My mouth was full of dental implements, but I did my best to nod enthusiastically.

He proceeded to tell two stories about past patients that almost brought me to tears. I doubt I have much of a dental following, but I’m going to refrain from retelling his stories here so as not to inadvertently steal his thunder. I’ll just share his punchline:

My mentor always used to say that if you take care of people, you’ll always have food on your table. That’s what this business is about: Taking care of people.

I’m feeling great appreciation right now for all the people in my life who take care of me (including Dr. Ho). Reflecting on how I can do more of that in my own work and life.

Chucky and my Vision Board

I was in my late 30s at the end of 2012 when I decided to leave the company I had co-founded. I was predictably existential, both about my work and my life. I was also completely burned out, and I was more than happy to set aside any anxiety I might have about the future, and simply take a break.

After the weariness went away, I had a brief surge of energy and excitement, which slowly gave way to anxiety. I was scared of starting over. I believed in myself, but I was afraid that others didn’t. On top of all that, I had brazenly decided to put myself through an intellectually rigorous process of challenging every assumption I had about how to do my work well, not realizing that this would slowly, but surely chip away at all that hard-earned self-belief.

One of my coping mechanisms was to collect articles about people whose stories resonated and inspired me. I placed these articles in a folder entitled, “Vision Board.”

One of the articles I clipped was about Jon Gruden (also known as Chucky, because his intense grimace resembled the murderous doll’s expression). I briefly mentioned why I did this in a blog post later that year, but the longer explanation is:

  • The Raiders hired him as their head coach when he was 34
  • After leading the Raiders back to contention, owner Al Davis famously “traded” him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That year, at 39, Chucky and the Buccaneers beat the Raiders in the Super Bowl.
  • He was fired from the Buccaneers in 2009 at 45

Everyone expected him to get right back into coaching, but he didn’t. Instead, he rented an office in Tampa Bay and proclaimed it headquarters for FFCA (Fired Football Coaches of America). It was a place where he could continue to study the game, and where people who loved football as much as he did could hang out and pick his brain. The space was pure, devoid of selfish interests tarnishing his viewpoints. And coaches and quarterbacks at all levels came in droves to hang out with Gruden.

(Another frequent guest, as it turns out, was Mark Davis, son of Al, who took over the Raiders when the elder Davis passed away.)

Over the years, his role evolved to include chief analyst of Monday Night Football and host of Gruden’s QB Camp, which quickly became legendary. Every year, people expected him to jump back into coaching, but year after year, he turned down all comers. He was happy doing his thing, which included both football and spending time with his family, something that wouldn’t be possible as a coach.

Gruden’s story resonated with me — his intense passion, his devotion to the game, his age when he stopped coaching, and his creativity in balancing his passion with his other interests while resisting the pull to coach purely out of habit.

Today, the prodigal son came home. Gruden decided it was time to coach again, and in a twist of all twists, he’ll be coaching the Raiders. Mark Davis apparently had been trying to re-hire Gruden for the past six years, and it finally happened.

I’m happy for Gruden and for Raiders fans. I “came out of retirement” myself a little over two years ago, so his ongoing story and the different parallels continue to inspire me.

Photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class John E. Woods. Public domain and found in Wikimedia Commons.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Excerpts from Jose A. Alcantara’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, via Mark Leach:

If you have a compass, smash it.
Nothing can point you to true anything, let alone true north.
Besides — and never forget this — you are trying to get lost.
You may be gone for a long time
so be sure not to pack any food or water.
It is only the hungry who feed, only the thirsty who are quenched.

Before you leave, be sure to write a note
telling everyone exactly where you will not be.
The last thing you need is someone coming to your rescue.

Now, find the best map possible
and tear it up. You will be traveling on a scale
that no one has ever drawn.

Do not leave a string of crumbs behind you.
This would only attract predators.
On second thought, go ahead.

Write postcards telling everyone of your adventures.
Be sure to lie, like a fox leaving false tracks.
Someday they will thank you.

You will not know when you have arrived.
But if you think you have, you haven’t.
If you think haven’t, you probably have.

If you come to a fork in the road
stab yourself in the foot with it. You will
reach your destination much faster if you are limping.

Better yet, use it to pluck out your eyes.
There are many signposts along the way.
Maybe now you will learn to see.