Columns, Opinions

Thomas ’21: The wake-up call of the 2018 U.S. Open

By
Staff Columnist
Sunday, September 16, 2018

There were a lot of storylines that could have been written following the the 2018 U.S. Open Women’s Singles final. Serena Williams, arguably the greatest tennis player to ever hold a racquet, was looking to win a staggering 24th Grand Slam title and match the all-time Grand Slam record currently held by Margaret Court. This win also would have been Williams’ first Grand Slam after giving birth to her daughter, Olympia, last year. On the other side of the net, rising tennis star Naomi Osaka, enjoying a breakout season, sought to win the first Grand Slam title of her career at only 20 years of age. With a win, Osaka would become the first Haitian-Japanese player to win a Grand Slam. Notably, the final represented a true matchup of student versus teacher — Osaka openly cites Williams as one of her idols. The match promised to be exciting and tremendously significant, no matter the winner. Instead, the aftermath of the controversial final has failed to reflect any of the excitement going into the match. In different ways, it’s as if Williams and Osaka both managed to lose. Indeed, the final of the 2018 U.S. Open and its third set drama demonstrated the experiences of erasure of Williams and Osaka — and brought to mainstream attention the racial prejudice that women competitors of color face throughout their careers, beneath the meritocratic facade of professional sports.

For Williams, the final could not have gone much worse. She received multiple code violations during the match which, ultimately, cost her a game. Williams expressed her frustration not only with her own level of play, but with match umpire Carlos Ramos as well. When speaking with Ramos, Williams said two notable things: “This is not fair,” regarding her penalties, and “You owe me an apology.” In the context of the match, these statements are immediately understandable and reflect Williams’ feelings at the time. But, they also unmistakably speak to her experience at the top of tennis for nearly 20 years. When she and her sister, Venus Williams, first emerged on the tennis scene, they were coached by their outspoken father, Richard Williams. He would openly state that his daughters would go on to become Grand Slam champions, which they did. But at the time he was not taken seriously, and was thought to be insane, when other parents’ belief and confidence in their children might be seen as nothing more than supportive. It was as if the Williams sisters weren’t allowed to believe they could succeed at the highest level in a predominantly white sport. Granted, to say that two girls from Compton were going to take over the sport of tennis was a bold statement, but we all saw what happened with that.

As Williams’ career matured and she began to assert her dominance on the professional tennis circuit, she has faced an unfair share of criticism surrounding her body and the intensity she brings to every match. A recent comic in Australia’s The Herald Sun — which depicts her as exaggeratedly large, muscular and whiny — illustrates the ways in which Williams is demonized for these two exact things. And while her accomplishments and accolades certainly speak to her greatness, they are often marked with an asterisk and compared to the accomplishments of her male counterparts to bring her down a notch. Thus, throughout her 20 years at the top of tennis, Serena Williams has had to deal with questions about her ability, attacks against her physique and efforts to discredit her accomplishments. In the 2018 U.S. Open Final, it all seemed to come to a head. Her outbursts were a microcosmic eruption of a career’s worth of frustration. To use Williams’ own words, it’s not fair that she’s had to endure attacks against her and her family, and she is owed an apology for the way she has been treated since she first hit the scene.

For Osaka, the final should have been a dream come true. And it was: Osaka became the first Haitian-Japanese player to win a Grand Slam, though the moment certainly wasn’t what she had dreamt up in her head. And while she’s won the first of what may very well be many more Grand Slams to come, the media has inordinately emphasized only half of her identity. In countless news reports, her Haitian identity is often given just a sentence. The same comic that painted Serena Williams in an overly exaggerated manner also painted Osaka in a much more tame, unassuming manner. In the comic, Osaka has straight, blonde hair, and her skin is very light. Essentially, any semblance of Osaka’s blackness is erased.  The effort to remove traces of black heritage from Osaka’s triumph reflects the larger societal prevalence of anti-blackness. (As far as the comic is concerned, the shades of Williams’ and Osaka’s skin were likely made to contrast so as to reinforce Williams’ role as the aggressor and Osaka as an unfortunate victim.) Osaka should be celebrated for her amazing victory, and the entirety of its significance, including all parts of her identity.

It isn’t as if Osaka herself downplays her Haitian roots. In a press conference held a few weeks ago, a reporter asked Osaka how her Japanese identity and American identity made her who she is today. Osaka responded by first pointing out, “My dad’s Haitian…” Separately, when an interviewer asked Osaka following a match about her Japanese identity, Osaka replied, “I’m honored to represent Japan but my dad’s side is Haitian — so represent.” Even after acquiring one of tennis’ most sought-after prizes, Osaka is subject to harmful social patterns that effectively erase half of who she is.

Williams and Osaka have reached the pinnacle of their sport and been on top of the world. Despite — or perhaps because of — their immense success, these incredible female athletes are still subjected to racism, which might seem as if it would fold against such powerful women. But this has not been the case. Sports give us an opportunity to see how things we think about in the abstract, like racism, have real impacts on individual lives, even those of people we might deem heroic. Williams has been in the game for over 20 years and has faced racism at every stage in her career. And now, as the end of her career nears, a new star is on the rise in Osaka, and she’s experiencing a similar phenomenon.

There are things that professional tennis associations, like the Women’s Tennis Association, can do to attract more players from more backgrounds to the sport. The Washington Tennis and Education Foundation is a nonprofit offering programs in the Washington, D.C. area for children from under-resourced neighborhoods to gain access to academic support and tennis training. The WTEF is an example of a way tennis can demonstrate a commitment to diversity — to including more people of different backgrounds in the game. And, like most professional jobs, umpires should receive substantial diversity training, so that they do not allow ingrained racial biases to impinge upon their professional and athletic judgement. Advancing basic ideas like these could alleviate some of the turmoil great champions like Osaka and Williams have had to endure up to this point.

Quentin Thomas ’21 can be reached at quentin_thomas@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.