It was supposed to be a night with one bright star, the protagonist ensuring her spot in the history of one of the most elegant sports. In tennis, camaraderie and sportsmanship go hand in hand despite the battle of mind and muscle unlimited by time constraints. But this time the story went differently, and the victor of the U.S. Open, just 20 years old, is entwined in controversy because the umpire called clear fouls against the match favorite, Serena Williams.
Passion for the game aside, this tournament would just be another U.S. Open if not for the victor’s unique traits. Naomi Osaka is physically distinct from most of tennis world champions, and she is humble. This latter characteristic marks a stark contrast to the behavior of the big celebrity in women’s tennis, self-proclaimed “The Queen.” Arguably, Williams’ regal title is deserved: 23 Grand Slam titles demonstrate her outstanding performance, although her career has not been without controversy.
Both Osaka and Williams are what Americans call minorities. Osaka is classified as mixed race; Williams as African-American. Williams had been the favorite to win her 24th Grand Slam title, returning to Flushing Meadows after having given birth last year, and after recovering her strength and agility with surprising speed. A celebrity, she is accustomed to rapidly dispatching her rivals. So her frustration was evident. The Queen wasn’t able to return some spectacular backhands, an incendiary forehand that constantly sought impossible angles, and an amazing serve that sped up to 124 miles per hour, a speed more typical of a men’s game.
A commanding 6-2 in the first set left unbelievers wide-eyed. Reality, not fiction, was being written. In hysterics – “serene” only in name – The Queen lost her crown of composure. And of decency, because insulting the umpire doesn’t sit well with tennis’ code of fair play. The sanctions imposed fit the rulebook. Finally, the game was won in the final set, bringing on the inevitable: a new champion. And Osaka is just that. Her skill with the racket and her conduct reflect her multiracial background.
But what about the accusation of sexism? What about the gender double standard? Was it the color of Williams’ skin that weighed more than the rules? This Gordian knot of doubts and concerns seems to come unraveled just looking at Osaka. Osaka’s mother is Japanese and her father Haitian. The story of her short professional career is already intense, and already a story of struggle against innumerable prejudices. She possesses many of the same characteristics as Williams. In addition, Carlos Ramos is famous in tennis circles as an excellent umpire, fair and just, even when imposing sanctions. As has already been said, in tennis, rules are not applied randomly, and the statistics show that sexism isn’t at play.
Still, Osaka’s triumph is more important than the controversy. Her tenacious style, her calm before the storm of experienced opponents, and her surprising concentration explain her victory, her superiority on that day to Williams. The force of Osaka’s spirit is in her DNA. Her parents’ story is one of resilience in the face of adversity, the type of story that can often be found in immigrant families, so rejected and yet so central to the cultural evolution of all our societies.
Leonard Maxime Francois and Tamaki Osaka met, fell in love, and married in Japan. This was a capital sin in a country known for its racial homogeneity, and even more so in remote areas like the village of Nemuro, hidden away on the island of Hokkaido. Impossibility and love often squabble, usually at the expense of the former. For Tamaki’s parents, a romance between a foreign black man and their daughter was a stain on the family’s reputation. So, the couple moved to the city of Osaka, where they had two daughters. Later, the family moved to the United States, to Long Island, New York, to a neighborhood made into a home for many Haitian-American families.
Francois had it in his head to imitate the father of the Williams sisters. With the same rigor, he led the girls toward a career in which Osaka quickly stood out. He made an astute choice when he registered her in the Japan Tennis Association, having been told that she would have a better chance of being supported there than in the hyper-competitive American system. And so, what began as disgrace leading to rejection was transformed into a blessing. As she has ascended in the tennis world while returning to the land of her birth, Osaka has been triumphant.
Osaka has also been a triumph of multiculturalism. Her darker color mixes with clearly Asian features. Her humility is pleasantly surprising and impressive in the tennis world of celebrities. On the podium during the awards ceremony in New York, she apologized to the crowd for having defeated Williams, the favorite.
Osaka’s beauty is her union of many cultures. She combines tradition (greeting with a bow) and modernity (she idolized Beyoncé). A daughter of two nations, she is the first Japanese woman to win the most important trophy in tennis. The riches of her families’ roots have opened a world of possibilities for her, a world of intangible treasures that are no less valuable than the millions of dollars that await her from new endorsements. Osaka responds in English to questions asked in Japanese. Although she understands Japanese perfectly, she isn’t comfortable speaking it. Her nationality is not as important, though, as her cultural heritage – her parents’ racial, social and historical differences contribute to her resources. Her father was born in Haiti, attended New York University, and settled in Japan. Haiti, Japan and the United States live in an enriching harmony to which surely, Osaka owes some of the talent that overflows in the consistency of her game and the efficiency of her movements and strategy.
Tennis is a sport for strong characters. On the court there is no team, just two opponents facing one another, confident in their games. Coaching is prohibited in the men’s game, but permitted in the women’s, as long as the umpire gives permission and it occurs on the court. The problem in the U.S. Open match was that the coaching was given from the stands. In theory, once the game is in play, a player’s knowledge and drive should come from inside each player, who must have a deep well of strength to take on an expert rival. If not, unforced errors add up, and hits fall out-of-bounds or fly into the net.
I would speculate that it is helpful to have internal resources from various cultures. Nourishing resources that help a person go deeper. Osaka, who expresses herself straightforwardly and simply, with more emotions than words, described her multicultural personality this way: “I don’t really think too much about my identity or whatever. For me, I’m just me. And I know that the way that I was brought up, I don’t know, people tell me I act kind of Japanese so I guess there’s that.”
In another interview, she explained that she grew up on Long Island in her grandparents’ house, somewhere between the two cultures of her parents. A New York Times article shed light on her experience: “Her father’s parents, who spoke no English, filled the air with Haitian Creole and the aroma of spicy Haitian stews. Her mother spoke to her and her sister in Japanese, preparing seaweed-and-rice-ball snacks for them at school and dressing them in kimonos for international day.” All cultures, races and colors belong in the game of tennis. A game that is played in silence.
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