Gunshots in Kenosha, Wisconsin interrupted Naomi Osaka’s run through the draw at the Western and Open tennis tournament last week, played for health security reasons at Flushing Meadows, N.Y., home of the U.S. Open, which begins today. The 2018 U.S. Open champion was due to play Elise Mertens (2019 doubles champion) in the semis, but after much soul-searching, she said, she decided to boycott the match due to the events in Wisconsin.
Miss Osaka also decided to drop her U.S. citizenship in order to represent Japan.
The tournament officials conferred among themselves and with her, though as well as anyone knows not with other players, and came up with a solution: there would be no play on the next scheduled day, but play would resume the day after.
Miss Osaka beat Elise Mertens in a fine match, 6-2, 7-6, then withdrew with a hurt hamstring, handing the championship by walkover to Viktoria Azarenka, who did not call for cessation of play to protest events in her native Minsk. This is not entirely trivial, because Miss Osaka said her boycott was to call attention to “the continued genocide of black people at the hands of police.” You choose your causes and you makes your stand, which may mean sitting it out.
Sports are affected by politics, of course, and society’s evolution is influenced by events on playing fields; this at least is our American experience. Baseball most famously expresses how American society got past segregation in the story of Jackie Robinson and how he earned the respect and admiration of his Brooklyn Dodgers teammates, their owner Branch Rickey, and their fans.
In tennis, the color line was crossed by Althea Gibson. The daughter of South Carolina sharecroppers, she grew up in New York City amidst poverty and violence. Sports were her escape, and her early success in the American Tennis Association, the Negro Leagues of tennis, and the scholarship arranged for her at the private tennis camp of the legendary Dr. Walter Johnson in Lynchburg , Virginia, was her ticket to success in the 1950s.
The ticket still had to be punched. She was not allowed to enter the U.S. Nationals (the precursor of the U.S. Open) until 1950, when one of the stars of the day, the glamorous Alice Marble, shamed the tennis establishment with an eloquent letter published in the journal American Lawn Tennis.
Althea Gibson, who was on a college tennis scholarship, did not win the Nationals that year but she steadily improved and began winning on the tour. It was an amateur tour then; to earn a living she taught physical education and considered an Army career. However, in 1956 she met a top English player named Angela Buxton who needed a partner for doubles because, as a Jew, she was discouraged from entering tournaments and barred from clubs — in Los Angeles no less than in London.
In a way, both young women turned the bigotry to advantage: Althea by working with Walter Johnson, Angela by finding a teacher in Pancho Gonzales, who though the greatest tennis man of his time, and maybe any time, also had to put up with discrimination due to his Mexican heritage.
Miss Gibson won the French tournament at Roland Garros, the first African American to win a Grand Slam. She and Miss Buxton took the doubles there and two weeks later they triumphed at Wimbledon. The following year she was singles champion at Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals, and successfully defended her Wimbledon doubles title.
These are only the highlights of Althea Gibson’s career. She needed to earn a living; she became a professional golfer and a film actress, notably in John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers. She never found financial security and suffered from it; Angela Buxton set up a trust for her but her last years were impoverished. She died in 2003; the USTA put a statue of her at Flushing Meadows last year.
Naomi Osaka earned 37 million dollars the same year, after firing the coach, Sascha Bajin, who led her to her 2018 U.S. Open victory over Serena Williams and her second Grand Slam a few months later at the Australia Open. Was it the right thing to do? Was money at issue? Who knows, and, in fact, it is no one’s business. Miss Osaka also decided to drop her U.S. citizenship in order to represent Japan.
No one has disputed her right to speak out, as a Japanese citizen, on the subject of genocide at the hands of American police departments. The tennis establishment has been supportive, conveniently forgetting that its leadership viewed her as an unfortunate accident in 2018 when she stole the show from the crowd favorite Serena Williams (who by contrast showed grace and generosity in defeat). Its useful but somewhat press-release-style organ, Tennis magazine, complimented her (“the right thing”) for her utterances about genocide and her off-on-out comportment at the Western and Open.
No one seems to remember, either, that Althea Gibson and Angela Buxton insisted on playing, not grandstanding, even when tournament organizers tried to keep them off the courts, or that Arthur Ashe, to take another famous student of Walter Johnson, rejected advice he boycott apartheid-era South Africa, though he did not especially want to play there. He realized his presence on a court in Johannesburg in 1973, before a crowd that he had insisted be integrated or he would not play, was greater than any virtuous eye-wink from far away.
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