After Althea Gibson became the first Black woman to win the U.S. National Championships (now the U.S. Open) in 1957, it took 42 years before another Black woman, Serena Williams, followed in her footsteps. Since her initial win in 1999, Williams has won six U.S. Open singles titles; at the most recent tournament, she hoped to make history and gain her seventh title in a finals match against Naomi Osaka. By now, you probably know what happened next. Umpire Carlos Ramos made controversial calls against Williams. He followed that with a code violation, alleging that Williams received coaching during the match from Patrick Mouratoglou. After Williams reacted to a missed shot by breaking her racket, Ramos gave her a point penalty; finally, a verbal exchange with Ramos ended with a game penalty. The tournament also fined Williams $17,000 for the three code violations.
In the midst of the resulting media firestorm, discussions and debates about racism and sexism in tennis have overshadowed a poignant aspect of their match: Naomi Osaka winning her first major Grand Slam title should’ve been a complement to Williams’s own legacy. After Williams won the U.S. Open in 1999, it didn’t take another 42 years for another Black woman to secure the championship; it only took one. Her sister, Venus Williams, defeated Lindsay Davenport in 2000 to become the third Black female U.S Open champion. Sloane Stephens became the fourth in 2017. Although these four tennis players are African American in both ethnic origin and nationality, Osaka’s win over Serena Williams earned her the distinction of being the first Japanese woman to win the women’s singles title in the U.S. Open. (Osaka holds dual citizenship in Japan and in the United States, where she has lived since the age of three.)
A recent ad for Nike’s 30th-anniversary “Just Do It” campaign shows a home video of young Serena Williams training with her father, Richard. “This is you at the U.S. Open,” he says. Nine-year-old Serena exhales like she’s playing on the national stage, then fiercely serves the ball, foreshadowing the strength and speed that made her famous in her teens. At the moment that home video was taken in 1991, the elder Williams planted images in his daughter’s mind that gave her vision beyond what she saw in professional tennis—a sport dominated by white people. They had to dream it together until she and Venus changed the reality.
Naomi Osaka’s father and former coach, Leonard Francois, undoubtedly played a strikingly similar role in preparing Naomi and her sister Mari for professional tennis. But young Osaka didn’t have to flip through the history books for a role model—she could simply turn on her television and see Serena and Venus. It would be easy to assume Osaka’s heritage based on name and nationality alone, but the 20-year-old tennis star’s gorgeous Brown skin reflects her African heritage—and complicates her narrative. Osaka has been outspoken about correcting reporters who focus on her Japanese heritage without acknowledging she’s also the daughter of a Haitian man. It’s no one except Osaka’s business whether she identifies as Black. But in a 2016 USA Today interview, she revealed that when fans see her in Japan, “[…] people are confused. From my name, they don’t expect to see a Black girl.”
It’s no secret that Osaka considers Serena Williams her heroine. After defeating Madison Keys in the U.S. Open Semifinal, she credited her desire to play Williams in the final as her motivation to power through 13 breakpoints. “I just really wanna play Serena…[b]ecause she’s Serena,” Osaka gushed in a post-game interview in which she also professed her “love” for Williams. With heartbreaking vulnerability, she even apologized after the final for defeating the obvious crowd favorite.
Many Black American tennis fans have also received Osaka’s win with cheers. Since Osaka plays as part of the Japanese Tennis Association, her biracial, multi-ethnic heritage has sparked debates about who she represents, and who gets to claim her. With the complex politics of race, nationality, and ethnicity, those questions aren’t easy to answer. Osaka conducts her interviews in American English, peppered with American pop-culture references, and currently lives and trains in Florida. Just as Williams’s influence in tennis extends beyond ethnic and national boundaries, so too might Osaka’s. It is entirely possible that a new generation of young Black American girls watched her play against Serena Williams and developed stars in their own eyes.
Naomi Osaka winning her first major Grand Slam title should’ve been a complement to Serena Williams’s own legacy.
Minority representation matters, but it can come with the wearying expectation that the person in the spotlight must continually speak about their background, rather than about their skills, their hopes, their disappointments. The New York Times noted in Althea Gibson’s obituary that she once expressed frustration with her presumed role as an ambassador of Black people to a segregated world. She said, “I don’t consider myself to be a representative of my people. I am thinking of me and nobody else.” Being the first Black woman in several tennis categories meant, however, that Gibson would always wear the distinction whether or not she wanted it. But there is a marked difference between knowing you’ve paved a path for future athletes, and seeing the future in your present.
Part of Serena Williams’s legacy is not only inspiring a new generation of little Brown girls to be a professional tennis player like her, but even inspiring them to beat her. Osaka played convincingly in the U.S. Open final from top to bottom. If Williams had not lost a game and a point due to controversial code violations, the veteran may have only experienced the bittersweet moment of defeat from a younger successor who is also an adoring fan. The post-game hugs they exchanged through their tears tell a far more touching, compelling narrative than that of “meltdowns.” Both women can share in the pride that comes from knowing they stand on the shoulders of giants who helped make them tall enough to reach for the stars.