Tennis has long been in a bubble to the outside world, Naomi Osaka tried to break out

Tennis is, and has been, guilty of living in the bubble for too long. And players have been guilty of being selfish, privileged and aiding their factions and egos.

Tanuj Lakhina August 28, 2020 13:20:58 IST
Tennis has long been in a bubble to the outside world, Naomi Osaka tried to break out

“The tennis world is known, by and large, as a selfish, privileged world crammed with factions and egos,” said a reporter in 1992 when Arthur Ashe brought together top players and a huge crowd to raise funds for Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of Aids (AAFDA). One of the players involved in that event was John McEnroe. “I’m just glad someone finally organised the tennis community like this, and obviously it took someone like Arthur to do it.”

And on Thursday, it was Naomi Osaka who led the change, who jolted the tennis community to sit up and take notice of the world around them. “.. Before I am a [sic] athlete, I am a Black woman. And as a Black woman I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis,” she wrote on Twitter.

“I don’t expect anything drastic to happen with me not playing, but if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport I consider that a step in the right direction.”

“Watching the continued genocide of Black people at the hand of the police is honestly making me sick to my stomach. I’m exhausted of having a new hashtag pop up every few days and I’m extremely tired of having this same conversation over and over again. When will it ever be enough?,” Osaka tweeted.

With a simple statement in English and Japanese, Osaka did what none of her peers had done in the past: refused to play. But more importantly, she got a conversation going.

Later, Canada’s Milos Raonic said, “I think real disruption, that’s what makes change, and I think a lot of real disruption is caused by affecting people in a monetary way and can force some kind of change,” he said. “I’m hoping at least we on the men’s tour as well as the women’s, we band together and we show support.”

In the immediate aftermath of Osaka declaring she won’t play, the tournament (Western & Southern Open) organisers, the USTA, ATP Tour (governing body of men’s tennis) and WTA (governing body of women’s tennis) jointly decided to ‘pause’ for a day (27 August). A bold step for a sport still getting back up from the blow of the pandemic.

She may have gone back on her word to skip the semi-final in New York following “lengthy consultation with the WTA and USTA” but she’s set the ball rolling. The players, if they so decide, can bring the sport to a halt. But for tennis, the challenge has been in coming together and taking concrete, bold steps. For long, the sport has made artificial changes, social media protests and taken soft steps.

During the George Floyd protests, Serena Williams, who has been an inspiration and leader among Black tennis players, Frances Tiafoe, Coco Gauff, Gael Monfils, former USTA president Katrina Adams and Heather Watson expressed their support for the Black Lives Matter cause. Osaka travelled from Los Angeles to Minnesota, nearly 1900 miles, to join the protests in person. Gauff, all of 16, delivered a passionate speech in her home town Delray Beach. Biggies in Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, too, expressed themselves with social media posts. Despite the heavyweights of the sport adding their voice, it wasn’t translating into change.

And tennis has plenty to change – just ask Serena. She and sister Venus Williams chose not to participate at Indians Wells for 14 years (2001 onwards) due to the racist insults aimed at her and father Richard. The decision made a dent in both players’ rankings and earnings.

“It’s where I won my first professional match, but it’s also where I lost a piece of myself. For a long time, I just couldn’t imagine revisiting one of the darkest moments of my career,” Serena wrote in Time in 2015. “The false allegations that our matches were fixed hurt, cut and ripped into us deeply,” Williams wrote this month. “The undercurrent of racism was painful, confusing and unfair. In a game I loved with all my heart, at one of my most cherished tournaments, I suddenly felt unwelcome, alone and afraid,” she went on.

Tennis is, and has been, guilty of living in the bubble for too long. And players have been guilty of being selfish, privileged and aiding their factions and egos.

For when some have tried to challenge the norm, the sport hasn’t reacted well. Take the case of McEnroe and Martina Navratilova who unfurled a banner asking for the Margaret Court Arena to be renamed in honour of Evonne Goolagong. Court has been a homophobe, transphobe, and bigot for decades. Instead of acknowledging the need for change, Australian Open organisers forced the legendary duo into apologising and threatened to withdraw their accreditation.

The list of instances where tennis players have come forward for each other is pretty small. In 2009, Andy Roddick decided to skip playing in Dubai, where he was defending champion, after Israel’s Shahar Peer was denied visa. The American said he "didn't agree with what went on over there”.

At the 1973 Wimbledon, 82 male players pulled out after Nikola Pilic was barred as he had refused to represent Yugoslavia in the Davis Cup and was subsequently banned. Recently formed ATP, with 97 members, stated no one should compete if Pilic couldn’t.

Ashe, the first, and only, Black male to win the Wimbledon singles title protested apartheid in South Africa and the mistreatment of Haitian refugees in the United States. And now it is Osaka, whose father is from Haiti, and has lived in the US since she was three years old, who is hoping to create some much-needed change.

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can,” a poignant quote by Ashe is one of the entry points at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows. Maybe, tennis and the players themselves, need to start somewhere.

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