This article was initially published on July 30
The last time Naomi Osaka played a competitive tennis match, she sobbed as she left the court. Just a few weeks after her failed title defence at the Australian Open, where she played an abysmal match to lose to then 15-year-old Cori Gauff in the third round, she managed to win only three games against world number 78 Sara Sorribes Tormo in a Fed Cup qualifier in Spain. Although just a year on from becoming world number one, Osaka was struggling.
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In an individual sport like tennis, such scenes are not uncommon. The pressure, the expectation and the way that life transforms in the blink of an eye after the simple act of winning seven tennis matches can consume even the strongest characters. As their actions become scrutinised and every word they speak is a potential headline, players often deal with their transformed status by focusing even more on their tennis. They say less, they offer less of their personality and they hope it is enough to blunt all distractions.
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One of the great sporting revelations of 2020 has been Naomi Osaka’s decision to take a different route. Having the time and space to think about life beyond the confines of a tennis court has transformed her outlook amidst public outrage following the killing of George Floyd. Days after Floyd was killed, Osaka flew to Minnesota to pay her respects to Floyd, marching among protestors there and in Los Angeles. She has been a constant presence on social media, signal-boosting different causes and opining on others with abandon. She has faced a consistent stream of criticism, including ample racial slurs, which she has handled with humour and fire, clapping back with abandon. In July, she wrote an op-ed in Esquire expressing her support for defunding the police.
“I never would have imagined writing this two years ago, when I won the US Open and my life changed overnight,” she wrote.
As Osaka marched in Minneapolis, Coco Gauff did so in Delray Beach, Florida. While finding her voice has been a gradual rise for an introvert like Osaka, for Gauff even more remarkable is the fact that this was never in doubt. While almost all tennis prodigies have arrived on tour consumed by tennis and nothing else, Gauff was always different. Even when she was an unknown 15-year-old with a following of 5,000, she was educating her followers on black history, championing humanitarian causes and determined to make a difference beyond her day job.
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Across the narrow road from the Delray Beach Tennis Center where she trains, Gauff gave a tremendous speech after a march in June. Between imploring her audience to engage with their non-black friends and admonishing the absurdity of those who consume black culture but ignore racial issues, perhaps the most important comment came towards the end: "I was eight years old when Trayvon Martin was killed, so why am I here at 16 still demanding change?"
Gauff’s words went viral across the world as people complimented the ease with which she expressed herself and branded her a future leader, but it’s hard to say that they were truly heard. What the reaction lacked was shame. Activism may come as naturally to Gauff as striking a backhand, and so much of what she does away from the court is extremely impressive, but perhaps we should strive to live in a world where 16 year olds do not feel the need to protest, and while listing the names of dead black people.
Cori Gauff and Naomi Osaka
Image credit: Getty Images
It is difficult to think of a sport as transformed by these unprecedented times as tennis. Normally, the tennis season spans 10 to 11 months of the year as players spend most of their days living out of suitcases. Now players have been grounded longer than most major sports. While the rare benefit of being able to live has had a transformative effect on some players, it has also been a significant period for those whose personalities have been exposed.
The ill-fated Adria Tour remains the most obvious reference point, where Novak Djokovic organised a tennis exhibition to packed crowds by day and stripteased in Belgrade clubs with Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev, Grigor Dimitrrov and others by night. Within two weeks a dozen people involved were infected with the disease.
The recklessness in Belgrade and Zagreb complemented Djokovic methodically revealing his attraction to pseudoscience throughout the lockdown. He started the break by offering his Instagram live platform to men spouting a spate of pseudoscientific opinions (and usually selling something). In recent weeks he travelled to Bosnia, met Semir Osmanagic and meditated at the central Bosnian hills, which Osmanagic claims against all geological evidence are the oldest man-made pyramids.
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Before the pandemic, Thiem was widely known as an understated, hard-working boy with a propensity for competing every single week. But as he continued his hectic travel schedule unabated after the positive tests, some tone deaf comments left a nasty taste in many mouths. Instead of isolating after his exposure to the virus, Zverev caused a mini-frenzy when he was pictured singing and dancing to Jay-Z, causing even his own fansites to rebuke him. All the while, John Isner, the number one US tennis player, continued to thrive as the top Donald Trump follower in tennis, dubbing fans “coronabros” for simply being concerned about people playing tennis in states with fast-rising cases.
While most footballers sweep past mixed zones and are selective about the times they choose to speak, tennis players are mandated to give press conferences, interviews and a slew of promotional content after each match. Fans often feel like, over time, they get a better sense of what their favourite player is really like. In reality, this four-month break has been more revelatory than a million interviews. “In the past few months, I’ve re-evaluated what’s actually important in my life. It’s a reset that perhaps I greatly needed. I asked myself, 'If I couldn’t play tennis, what could I be doing to make a difference?'" wrote Osaka in Esquire. For some other players, such questions never even crossed their minds.
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