Serena Williams came to Flushing Meadows with the goal of winning her 24th career Grand Slam title. After having failed in four title matches, there were great expectations that she would succeed this time. Ironically, it was the young lady to whom she lost in her first opportunity to equal Margaret Court’s record that would win again and also speak out against racism.
Serena’s prospects were justifiably high; especially with the absence of world number one, Ashleigh Barty of Australia, second-ranked Simona Halep of Romania and the defending champion, Bianca Andreescu of Canada. However, the draws offered no easy path for Serena. The top eight seeds were Czech Karolina Pliskova, America’s Sofia Kenin (2020 Australian Open champion), Serena Williams, Japan’s Naomi Osaka, Czech Petra Kvitova, Johanna Konta of Great Britain, America’s Madison Keys and Petra Martic of Croatia.
Osaka’s stand against racism was made public during the warm-up Western & Southern (Cincinnati) event. On the day after Police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha Wisconsin, Osaka announced her intention to withdraw from the semifinal match, to protest Police brutality against black people. She said she was in solidarity with others in the National Basketball Association, the Women’s National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball. The Women’s Tennis Association and the organizers of the Cincinnati tournament quickly decided to suspend play for one day and on that account Osaka rescinded her intention.
She played and won the semi-final match against Elise Mertens of Belgium, but could not play the finals on account of an injury to her left hamstring. The title was awarded to Victoria Azarenka of Belarus.
In her first round match at the U.S. Open, Osaka came on court wearing a black facemask with Breonna Taylor embroidered in white. After her three-set victory over compatriot Misaki Doi, she expressed the hope to reach the finals, so the world could see the others. What other names would she parade? Successively, she donned the black facemasks with the names of Elijah McCain, Marcus Aubery, Treyvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castille and Tamir Rice.
When Osaka was asked of her feeling about Serena not expressing vocal support for the current revulsion about racism, she gave a mature answer. “Serena is an icon. I wouldn’t be here but for her. She has well thought-out reasons for her actions.” This is reminiscent of the noble-heartedness conveyed in Roger Federer’s words: “I generally don’t have anything bad to say about anyone.” When the question on Osaka’s stance on racism was posed to Serena, she said that her spirituality has been made known well enough.
The great Frenchman Jules Le Maitre once said: “Humanisez vos profession, quelle q’elles soient.” (Humanise your work, whatever it may be). Make your profession relevant to the needs of mankind. Sportsmen and women had always been constrained by the establishment to keep away from topical social issues.
However, individual athletes had used their moment in the spotlight to make a point and some suffered the consequences. As a conscientious objector, Muhammad Ali said: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” In tennis, Arthur Ashe defied the ban on sporting contact with apartheid South Africa to play an exhibition in Ellis Park and said: “I don’t want anyone to take my options from me.”
In today’s world, Osaka’s activism is a profile in courage; particularly for an athlete just coming into the spotlight and financial gains. Ironically, the country she and her family fled because of her bi-racial parentage and which later backed her budding potential with huge endorsements has come out openly to express support for her activism. Everyone likes a winner.