We're Allowed to Have More Than One Great Black Tennis Player at a Time

We're Allowed to Have More Than One Great Black Tennis Player at a Time
Image:Paul Crock (Getty Images)

On Wednesday night, while mere mortals prepared to go to bed and rest from their days of ordinary tasks, Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams faced off in the first semi-final of the Australian Open. The match, between the current Greatest of All Time and a rising superstar, was some of the most interesting and nail-biting tennis of the entire Open: two opponents who are not only evenly paired, but push each other in ways no other player can challenge. Osaka won the match, which might have prompted coverage of the electric game—Osaka breaking Williams’s serve, the intensity of the game, Williams’s incredible rally to try and rip victory from her opponent’s clutches. Really, it could’ve been anything other than another round of Will She or Won’t She Retire.

After Osaka’s win, Williams performed her usual twirl and wave to the crowd, this time adding a small moment where she looked out to her fans, hand over heart, and acknowledged their presence. That move took up all of the air in post-match coverage, as commentator and former tennis star Steffie Graff wondered whether Williams, with the gesture, had just said goodbye to the sport of tennis forever. The Washington Post pointed out Williams “is transitioning mentally, and on the other side of aging, 23-year-old Osaka is gaining strength and realizing that this is her time.”

One day, Serena Williams will retire. Whether that day was Wednesday or sometime in the future is not for the press to say; it’s a decision for Serena Williams, a woman who transcends her sport and has singlehandedly given fans a reason to tune in for two decades. Speculation that Williams is retiring also came from a post-match press conference, where Williams teared up during a question about errors in her game and walked off abruptly.

Serena Williams has always been an expressive player—her mid-game grunts and shouts to pump herself up are standard at this point—and has been damned by the press continually for her willingness to show emotion, especially when compared to generally stoic Osaka. This was most painfully on display during the 2018 U.S Open, when Williams famously had an argument with a chair umpire during a match with Osaka that cost Williams some hard-fought points. Both women shed tears.

Williams’s abrupt departure from the interview on Wednesday could mean a hundred different things, none of which are surprising: she lost an important match, she is her toughest critic, and she knows her loss can partially be blamed on her own in-game miscalculations. Many other tennis players might be in shambles after such an event and would expect the media to coddle them. But somewhere deep down the gatekeepers of tennis can’t stand that Serena Williams is human, prone to displaying her emotion while simultaneously being almost impossible to beat.

When it comes to Serena Williams, it’s always about race for commentators, a fact that’s never more obvious than when she faces off against Osaka. They expect an all-out battle—not just because it’s two of the best at opposite ends of the court, but because it’s two Black women, whose very different playing styles both somehow get described as aggressive. In the tennis world, there seems to only be enough room for one woman of color at the top.

Naomi Osaka is earning her place at the top with every match. She’s ranked number three in the world, she is the highest-paid female athlete, she’s a partial owner of an NWSL team (just like Williams), and she’s got a game face that can’t be shaken (although she did have a questionable blink yesterday that betrayed some fear and I’m shocked and appalled the media didn’t seize on that). Osaka is the complete package and she should be allowed to reign over the kingdom of tennis side by side with Williams.

Instead, she’s portrayed almost as a usurper to Williams’s throne. You don’t see this on the men’s side, where both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have been allowed to co-exist as greats in peace. Framing Naomi Osaka as Williams’s replacement in the sport instead of her soon-to-be equal is a disservice to Williams’s legacy and places a limit on what Osaka can achieve. Despite their similarities, the two women operate differently within tennis and within the wider world and different doors will be open to them. Osaka, being a Japanese Black woman with lighter skin, will have opportunities that Williams didn’t get until she was passed her tenth major title. She’ll bring in a different audience and most importantly, she’ll carry her own torch. She doesn’t need to take it or have it handed over from Williams. The Osaka legacy will stand on its own, and while Serena and Venus Williams should be credited for laying the foundations in tennis upon which nearly all current women players stand, Naomi Osaka should not be asked to continue living in their shadow.

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