What women’s tennis is teaching me about supporting women

I’ve been thinking a lot about the US Open match between Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff last weekend, and what it so perfectly highlighted about the nuanced idea of “women supporting women.” This notion, conceived from a desire for camaraderie and support, has quickly shifted into a ubiquitous mantra plastered on t-shirts, Instagram captions, tombstones, etc. Although it seems like a straightforward idea to wrap your mind around, the match between these two inspiring young women made me realize that this tagline for feminism is so much more than blindly wishing the best for a woman and her endeavors (although we love that too!). It’s about pushing ourselves and each other out of our comfort zones to become more accomplished women in the long run.

Last weekend united two of tennis’s best female athletes onto one court. Naomi Osaka is the 21 year old who unsat Serena Williams from her #1 spot at the 2018 US Open. Playing opposite of Osaka was Coco Gauff, a 15 year old rising star in the tennis community. Although an exciting pairing, the match was over quicker than you could say “God, I wish I was talented in literally any way, shape or form.” In the words of Cardi B, Osaka completely dog walked Gauff, showing no mercy throughout the entirety of the hour long match. I was a rollercoaster of emotion from start to finish. First, I felt bad for Gauff. While I understood Osaka’s desire for a win, I found myself hoping…wishing… pleading the girl would cut her poor opponent some slack! And then I thought, wait a minute, why? Osaka is doing what she came to do! And just because she’s playing a young, bright eyed star doesn’t mean she should hold back from a complete wipeout. And then I’d contradict myself AGAIN with cries of, “but look at Coco’s sad, young, innocent little face….” And then I took the birth control pill I’d forgotten about and things stopped being weird.

Osaka’s triumph was met with tears from both the loser and the victor (and me, the girl streaming on Twitter). Then, in an unprecedented move, Osaka invited Gauff to participate in the post-match court-side interview. Saying, “I wanted her to have her head high, not walk off the court sad. I want her to be aware that she’s accomplished so much, and she’s still so young.” The emotional interview culminated in both players recognizing the other’s achievement. Osaka cheering on Coco’s talent, saying, “For me, like the fact that both of us made it, and we’re both still working as hard as we can, I think it’s incredible. I think you guys are amazing. I think, Coco, you’re amazing.” Gauff tearfully insisting, “I’m going to learn a lot from this match. She’s been so sweet to me, so thank you for this. Thank you.”

This kind of tenacious yet respectful competition should be applauded, and should also translate from sports into the world of us less talented but equally as ambitious folk. Because when pitted against other women, I think that we find ourselves in a tricky bind. We feel that our desire to win at the expense of another woman is unsupportive in nature. So, we wear a mask of passivity and let our desire for complete and total domination manifest itself behind closed doors. If Osaka stepped foot onto the US Open tennis court last weekend, stared at the 15 year old girl across from her, and thought “I should go easy on her,” would Gauff have learned anything from the match? Would she have become a better player? The way they both handled the brief match, from start to finish, proves that they are both walking off the court better women than they were then they walked on. 

I haven’t stopped thinking about this because it reminds me that we become better not by going easy on one another, but by pushing each other through tough obstacles with tenacity and determination. Because to paraphrase what Osaka said: the fact that we made it, and we’re working so hard, it’s incredible! So, yes, root for women whenever and wherever you can. But when it comes time to show up and show out, know that you’re providing an opportunity for another woman to learn from you, too. 

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