Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka demonstrate the struggle of Black excellence and Black womanhood
I woke up the morning after the women’s final at the 2018 U.S. Open still thinking about the tragedy of it all.
The world watched as veteran tennis player Serena Williams competed against rising star Naomi Osaka for the Grand Slam. The world also watched as chair umpire Carlos Ramos overextended his reach and penalized Williams for “verbal abuse” after the athlete defended herself against cheating accusations—to the point that he interfered with the climate of the game and affected its potential outcome, even as male tennis players get away with worse behavior.
Since then, racist fodder about Serena Williams has been highly prevalent in various media outlets. Depending on the news source, headlines shout that Serena exploded, had a meltdown, or threw a tantrum. Or, drawing on animalistic narratives, maybe she unleashed her fury. What she actually exhibited, even as she threw down her racquet, was very controlled and justified rage.
Nevertheless, because she showed emotion, because she acted in a manner that was not pleasing for white consumption, she was subjected to the angry Black woman stereotype now replaying on an endless loop in the news.
I could barely stomach looking at the nasty cartoon about Serena published in the Herald Sun. The cartoonist drew Serena jumping up and down on her racquet, mouth wide and arms arched to the side. The way she is depicted—from her hair, facial features, and body—is ripe with racist archetypes that evoke images of Serena as mammy, Jezebel, and other. In the background is Naomi Osaka, or rather the whitewashed version of her. She stands far removed from the scene, a plot device for the cartoonist’s “joke.” Her agency, along with her Haitian Japanese heritage, is summarily removed.
This misogynoir is not new, and the negative furor drowned out the historic nature of the match.
So much was lost at the U.S. Open.
The bittersweet dream of Osaka challenging her idol. Williams’ chance to achieve her 24th major title. Osaka’s ability to feel jubilant for her victory.
I did not know much about 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, a proud Haitian Japanese American, going into the match. Yet, it was quickly apparent that Osaka was nothing short of wonderful. She was an unrelenting powerhouse, sending monstrous serves and returns that kept Williams on her toes.
The match between these two began as a brilliant display of tennis mastery. It ended as a classic struggle of Black excellence and womanhood.
I was in the seventh grade when Venus and Serena Williams began playing tennis at the professional level. It was the beads, dripping down their braids and clacking noisily to announce their arrival, that initially captivated me. I was struck by how two girls from Compton who looked like me could unapologetically display their Blackness in a majority white setting. So much of who the Williams sisters were—their confident nature, their skill, their assurance of what they were destined for—I wanted for myself.
The first time I saw Serena Williams play, I was sitting in my Aunt Martha’s kitchen eating lunch. She exclaimed, “Oh! The tennis match is on! We gotta see who’s playing.” My auntie turned the TV dial. “Hopefully it’s Serena,” she said. It was. Serena was running across the court, serving a powerful backhand.
“She sure is noisy,” my auntie joked. Then, between hearty chuckles, she added, “And they don’t like that.”
Much of the commentary from media then was from white folks talking about Venus and Serena’s aggressiveness, and Serena’s tendency to grunt and scream on the court. It was unsurprising that racist narratives were used to describe the Williams sisters, then teenage girls. Black women are often reduced to stereotypes, and then believed to be superhuman when they display abilities contrary to what the dominant white narrative holds true. The Williams sisters may have been children, but that did not excuse them.
Those disapproving voices have grown in concert with the rise of Serena Williams’ celebrity and skill in adulthood. When she wins a match or adds another title or trophy to her collection, a clamoring mob takes up its pitchforks and polices her body. She receives more “random” drug testing than any other tennis player. She faces restrictions on what she is allowed to wear on the court. She is accused of being a man, of being anything other than the champion and woman that she is.
This is because it is impossible to be both a champion and a woman, especially if you are Black.
I want Williams to continue to dominate, to rise higher and higher until she sets unprecedented records. I want Williams to attain Margaret Court’s record 24 major title wins. Then I want her to win 25. (Hell, why not make it an even 30.) But this wish is a double-edged sword: The more Williams achieves, the more her face appears in commercials and advertisements on 20-foot-tall billboards—and the more ire she earns from an oppressive class bent on “putting her in her place.” As a result, I cannot count how many times I have held my breath for Williams during a tennis match. I cannot count the number of times I’ve abandoned watching her matches altogether because I feared what media would say about the outcome.
When I watch her games, I pace the room nervously. Anxiety floods my body. I hold my breath and wait. I reacted similarly when I watched former President Barack Obama on television throughout his presidency—when he and Michelle exited their limousine on the day of his inauguration, whenever he made a pubic appearance. I know these feelings to be resounding signs of the fragility of Black hope.
These feelings acknowledge that the greatest among us—those who shatter ceilings and manage to circumvent institutional limitations—are still human and still vulnerable. They signal our ability to surpass the sun and reach for the stars, only to be knocked back down to earth.
We saw it in Martin Luther King Jr., Florence Griffith-Joyner, and Muhammad Ali—only a sample of our hopes.
So when I watched the U.S. Open final, I once again held my breath. When the match ended, I still felt anxiety because of what I saw: Two women in tears standing solemnly next to each other, both robbed of what they had earned in their own right. Osaka outplayed Williams and deserved to celebrate her win. Williams deserved respect from the umpire and not to be treated as an “angry Black woman”—penalized with point losses when male players are not.
Williams then comforted a crying Osaka and made her laugh, even though the young athlete was distraught over how she won and had even apologized to the crowd for defeating her idol. Serena asked everyone in the Arthur Ashe stadium to look past the umpire’s failings and to acknowledge Osaka’s rightful win.
I woke up the next morning still tanked from the emotional overload of the match. I expressed my frustration on Twitter, and my tweets caught the attention of my auntie. She quickly sent me a series of text messages: “Every time Serena has a match that ends like this, I don’t know what happens—it just takes me days to get over it.” She later remarked, “My friends and I talk all the time about it. We all get into what we call a ‘tennis depression.’”
Maybe this is my own form of tennis depression. I am weary of the misogynistic commentary that stymies all women, and that plays out on the world stage for celebrity women. This weariness burdens me more as a Black woman: Against our will, we are positioned as weaker, uncontrollable, and often volatile. So those hot takes from largely white commentators and media outlets calling Williams a diva, a brute, and a sore loser were not suprising.
During Osaka’s press conference after her win, some reporters asked questions that implied an inherent wrongness on Williams’ part, pushing a narrative they hoped Osaka could validate. One reporter asked her if Williams was still her idol. Osaka replied that she would always “remember the Serena that I love” and that nothing would change and had no reason to change.
This exchange was later followed by a mystifying question regarding Osaka’s ethnicity, where her Haitian heritage was erased, something that has often happened throughout the course of the tennis player’s nascent career.
Sexist and racist narratives have hampered both Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, but they are legends in their own right for demonstrating the possibilities of rising above them. Seventh grade me would be encouraged by Osaka’s success and by Williams’ courage to stand up for herself. Today, I am heartened by their progress.
I see them and know that, in trial and triumph, there is always room for Black excellence.