scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, and the trials of excellence for black women

Serena Williams (eft) and Naomi Osaka posde for photos during the trophy ceremony after Osaka defeated Williams in the women's final of the U.S. Open tennis tournament.Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

On Saturday, Naomi Osaka drank from the cup of Serena Williams.

She deserved to win her first grand slam title and dance in the delight of beating her tennis idol.

Instead, both Osaka and Williams shed tears and a hug, the kind that isn’t just a celebration. It’s a consolation for the sweet-and-sour sting that comes with being black and a woman and great.

This US Open was served with sexism and racism: a double dose of bias Williams has fought her entire career; Osaka is starting to taste it, too.

“Your last name is Osaka, you were born in Osaka, which is a bit strange because your father is Haitian, one reporter asked at a post-match news conference. “So how come your last name is the same name of your city? You should have the last name of your father.”


As if it’s impossible to be multiracial, as if some kids don’t carry the names of their mamas, as if he’d done any research he’d know her Japanese mother’s last name made a black baby’s life easier in Japan.

Repeatedly, Osaka has been identified as the first Japanese player to win the US Open. It’s not a lie. She has a dual Japanese-American citizenship and though she’s been in America since she was 3 years old, she does represent Japan.

But it’s important to note she’s Haitian-Japanese, something she proudly talks about, having grown up in a Haitian household with her Haitian grandparents. Do not erase her blackness by ignoring her Haitian heritage.

Osaka’s father, Leonard Francois, comes to her practices but not the matches. Reporters asked why.

“I think he might take long walks because maybe my matches stress him out or something,” she said.

I wondered if it was the stories of Serena’s father, Richard Williams, that keep him away. At the Indian Wells tournament in California in 2001, Richard Williams told USA Today a man said to him: “I wish it was ’75; we’d skin you alive.”


Francois modeled his daughters after Venus and Serena Williams, telling the New York Times the blueprint was already there. Maybe he stays away to avoid the possible fallout. Perhaps he’s seen what Serena has faced throughout the years and fears the same will happen to his daughter.

Even now, Williams is being criticized in her loss to Osaka — being called shameful, furious, outraged, and a sore loser.

Because she wants fair treatment? It started when Williams was issued a warning by chair umpire Carlos Ramos, who said she was receiving instructions from her coach during the match in violation of the rules. She was rightfully angry; not an angry black woman trope. This is a 23-time grand slam champ. “I don’t cheat to win,” she told Ramos. “I’d rather lose.”

Another penalty came when she smashed her racket. OK, that's valid. But a third game-losing penalty came for her doing what so many male athletes have done before: Question a call — especially one that taints her ethics as an athlete? “You stole a point from me and you are a thief,” Williams said, demanding an apology.

She was fined $17,000 Sunday for every single one: $10,000 for verbal abuse, $4,000 for being warned for coaching, and $3,000 for breaking her racket. Make no mistake, this was a message to Williams and Osaka. The kind of message that says stay in your place or else.


Ramos didn’t issue a game violation to Novak Djokovic when he raged over a racket violation at Wimbledon this year.

“I’m here fighting for women’s rights and women’s equality,” Williams said afterward. “And for him to take a game? It made me feel like it was a sexist remark. I mean, like he’s never taken a game from a man because he’s said thief. It blows my mind. But I’m gonna continue to fight for women.”

Billie Jean King tweeted support.

“When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it,” the tennis legend wrote. “When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ & and there are no repercussions. Thank you, @serenawilliams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same.”

For Williams, this is a never-ending game of sex and race politics. She’s been tested for doping five times this year. Her catsuit, designed for health reasons and in honor of moms, was banned from the French Open. There’s always some official doubting her ability to simply be successful.

And now, the narrative is to have Serena be the big, bad wolf to Osaka.

After her historic win, a reporter asked Osaka if Serena’s “behavior” changed the way she idolized her.


Behavior like when she hugged Osaka at the net? Poor sportsmanship like when she told the crowd to stop booing? Sore loser like when she told reporters she could learn from Osaka? Stole the spotlight when she embraced a teary Osaka at the podium and made her laugh?

Katrina Adams, chairman and president of the USTA, issued a statement supporting Williams, saying, “What Serena did on the podium today showed a great deal of class and sportsmanship. This was Naomi’s moment, and Serena wanted her to enjoy it. That was a class move by a true champion.”

There is no turning these women against each other. There can be more than one black woman serving excellence at once.

When Osaka won, one of the hardest parts was watching her apologize to the crowd. Women, especially black women, are often forced to feel bad about their greatness.

When asked why she said sorry, it was about her love for Williams.

“I know that she really wants to have the 24th Grand Slam,” Osaka said. “When I step on the court I feel like a different person, right? I’m not a Serena fan, I’m just a tennis player playing another tennis player. But when I hugged her at the net, I felt like a little kid again.”

The same little kid who once wrote a report on Williams, colored it, and declared she’d be just like her.

Osaka is on her way to carving her own legend. And when it comes to playing defense against the racism and sexism in the game, let’s hope she’s ready to raise a racket.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.