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!”
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.