On this day, in the same arena, the queen and one of the princesses she inspired played.
The queen lost. The princess won. And some of us have the mixed emotions of wanting to wrap our arms around the queen and throw our arms up in exaltation for the princess.
During Friday’s early session at the Australian Open, the queen, Serena Williams, suffered a surprising loss to 27th seed Qiang Wang, 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5. In the night session, the princess, unseeded Coco Gauff, upset defending Open champion Naomi Osaka, 6-3, 6-4.
Gauff is a supernova. As she noted after her win on Friday, just two years ago at only 13 years old, she lost in the first round of the Australian Open juniors draw and now she’s in the round of 16 of the championship.
Even though she’s a professional athlete, Gauff is every bit her 15 years: during her on-court postmatch interview on Friday, bright pink nails matching her bright pink New Balance sneakers, she said, “Honestly, like, what is my life? Like, oh, my gosh!” as she discussed her win over Osaka. Her Instagram feed shows her posing at Walt Disney World on Christmas with her family and giddy at a Madison Square Garden meeting with Willow and Jaden Smith (she’s a huge fan of Jaden’s).
And that brings up some mixed feelings.
We know what the Williams sisters endured, we know the way they’ve been knocked and criticized for any misstep, missteps all young women make, missteps that for most young women are brushed aside as not knowing better, but for our young women are too often amplified.
Will that happen to Gauff too? Will she be allowed to be a teenager, her wide-eyed, amazing self, for the next few years? Will we let her revel in the awesomeness of her life, of getting to tour the world and having teachers who let her hand in high school assignments late because she’s trying to win a Grand Slam tennis crown?
Or will she endure the whispers and sometimes shouts that the Williamses did — that they were too loud, too powerful, too muscular, too outspoken, too emotional, all of which were euphemisms for being too black? Will our social media world look for reasons to try to tear her down?
For two decades, Venus and Serena Williams shattered tennis’ norms, racking up Grand Slam titles and Olympic gold medals and showing brown-skinned girls that the sport was not the exclusive enclave of girls whose skin tone was closer to that of tennis whites.
And in more recent years, Serena Williams has become not just a champion on the court, she’s become a champion of women, especially black women. She began using her voice before she became a mother, but the 2017 birth of daughter Olympia seems to have had a tremendous impact on her and Williams has channeled her on-court fierceness to advocate on behalf of those who have supported her for so long.
That includes Osaka. Their match in the 2018 US Open final when Osaka beat her idol will always be remembered for how it ended: with Williams sparring with chair umpire Carlos Ramos, and Osaka in tears and apologizing to Williams. Williams embraced the budding young star and made every effort to make sure Osaka got the praise she deserved for her win. Little more than a week ago, Osaka tweeted a photo of herself and Williams at a charity match and captioned it, “me and my mom lol.”
me and my mom lol. pic.twitter.com/HvCoPpgShm
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) January 15, 2020
It’s always hard to see our beloved champions play out the final years of their career, the wins fewer, the mistakes more frequent. After her loss to Wang, Williams said she made “far too many errors to be a pro athlete” and insisted that she believes her record-setting 24th Grand Slam will happen.
But it’s just a bit more bittersweet with Williams. For those of us of a certain age, we remember her as a teenager, wearing beads on the grass courts of stuffy Wimbledon of all places, someone who seemed so familiar excelling in a place where it had long appeared we just weren’t supposed to be.
We’ve held her up as she fought thinly veiled comments about her physique, defended her against the idea that Maria Sharapova, whom she’s clobbered in nearly every meeting, was some sort of legitimate rival, absorbed the ugly outright racism right along with her, as with that horrifying editorial cartoon out of Australia after the loss to Osaka in the US Open.
The beautiful thing, though, is that unlike Debbie Thomas, the elegant mid-’80s black figure skating world champion whose success didn’t lead to more brown-skinned girls joining the sport, the dominance of Queen Serena and Venus has meant numerous black girls have followed them to tennis.
Sloane Stephens, 2017 US Open champion. Madison Keys, 2017 US Open finalist. Osaka. And now, Gauff.
As we embrace the queen to thank her for all that she has done through her remarkable career, let us also take care with this princess, and lift her spirit as she continues her climb.