I grew up in a city where I felt like a perpetual outsider. Seattle, Washington is a place I proudly call home now, but as a Black kid to semi-affluent and simultaneously hood-adjacent parents, I felt like I wasn’t Black enough for my Black classmates, but was too Black for my White peers. It didn’t help that that I excelled in traditionally White sports like softball and had a name that no one could pronounce.
As I struggled through my Black identity in adolescence, softball ironically became my safe space. Everyday after school I got to practice with my teammates who were misfits in their own right: Black, Asian, biracial. As we completed swing after swing, slid into bases caked in mud, I got to pitch a ball as hard as I humanly could and trust that my teammates would catch me. Though I started playing softball as more of an internal competitiveness, the sport taught me the value of sisterhood for women of colour aiming for the impossible in a world that told us we didn’t belong.
Last Saturday at the US Open we watched two underdogs battle each other in pursuit of a title to be the best tennis players in the world. No one would debate that tennis was never created for players that look like 20 year-old Naomi Osaka, a brown-skinned daughter of Japanese and Haitian ancestry, or Serena Williams, a darker-skinned Black American titan from Compton, California.
Though most people recognise Serena Williams as one of the best athletes of all time now, the game has been cruel to her over years. Her braids and beads, her off-beat fashion choices on the court, her butt, and her muscled body have all defied critics investment in a sport designed for White players to thrive as themselves. At best, Serena’s criticism has conveyed to her that she must change her image, her speech, and her dress, herself in order to be accepted. At worst, the game has taught Serena she doesn’t belong in a White-dominated sport, and never will.
When chair umpire Carlos issued Williams a code violation for coaching that was anything but, then docked her a point for breaking her racket in frustration, followed by a penalty after Williams demanded he give her an apology, we saw Serena break. For once, Serena released her frustration, sadness, anger, passion, and humanity. For once, we saw what it looks like when a champion—who has devoted their entire life to being the best at their sport—display what it feels like to play a game that penalises their differences.
As Serena broke her racket, I felt all of the criticism that she received over decades—criticism that she be softer, quieter, less visible, smaller, humble, never arrogant, and proud yet never ungrateful of being allowed to play a sport that was never hers. The rules have forced her to apologise for showing her natural displays of passion and frustration at umpires in years past. The rules have forced her to get drug-tested more than any other tennis player in history. The rules have turned fans against her in favour of a white blonde champion who couldn’t beat Serena if she played with her left hand. And the rules have prohibited Serena from wearing culturally-empowering performance wear that could save her life.
These unspoken rules of being black and excellent have not been lost on Naomi Osaka, who has admitted her own love for her tennis hero. Osaka is after all, a dual-citizen of a nation that upholds racial monolithic purity. And Osaka’s father hails from Haiti–a nation that defied French enslavement and has suffered the consequences since. Osaka, though shy in her own right, has watched the very game that she now dominates reduce her tennis hero to tropes of the angry black woman.
Despite Osaka defeating Williams in a major upset that was beyond their reach, the two women embraced several times after the match and during the trophy ceremony. As a tearful Williams described how she felt about the match, she purposely took a moment to congratulate Osaka, give her credit, and make sure Osaka got the moment that she deserved. In many ways, Osaka received the recognition, support, and comfort that Williams never received.
When asked earlier this week how Osaka felt to beat her tennis hero in such a shocking way, she stated,“I felt really happy because I sort of felt like she knew that I was crying and she was saying some things and it made me happy overall.”
Perhaps that was the biggest takeaway of the 2018 US Open: Sisterhood among Black women will always be stronger than any attempt to reduce our talent.