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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Trailblazer Serena Williams paved way for a new age of athletes to speak out

Serena Williams returns a shot to Maria Sakkari

Serena Williams returns a shot to Maria Sakkari during the Western & Southern Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Tuesday. Credit: Getty Images/Matthew Stockman

It’s not just about tennis.

Not for Serena Williams. Not for Naomi Osaka.

As the U.S. Open gets underway Monday against the backdrop of a nationwide protest against racial injustice and a worldwide pandemic that has disproportionately impacted minorities, the two women of color are among those favored to win the tournament.

Williams and Osaka, the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds, are sitting at the top of a game that until a generation ago was played primarily at country clubs that would not have let them be members. And as much as both deserve to be able to focus only upon tennis, focus only upon adding another Grand Slam title to their resumes, both realize they never have had that luxury.

Osaka, 22, made that clear when she initially boycotted her semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows to join a nationwide protest by athletes against police brutality and racial inequities. She then returned Friday to win the match, which she played while wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Black Lives Matter.”

“I felt like I needed to raise my voice,” Osaka said Friday after her win, adding that she had not slept much the past two nights.

Williams, who was eliminated earlier at the Western & Southern, was asked in a media conference Saturday about what she thought of Osaka’s actions.

““I think that was Naomi’s decision [to boycott] and if it was a good decision for her, that was what she felt was the right decision and that was her decision,” Williams said. “It was good for her to come to that decision.”

“As for me, you all know how I feel. I just feel like it’s, you know, a lot of injustice going on, but I have other beliefs, more spiritual beliefs.”

The fact that Williams, the greatest women’s tennis player of all time, didn’t come out with something stronger might be a disappointment to some. Yet, at age 38, she has more than earned the right to pass that baton to the younger generation. It was the success of Williams and her sister Venus that inspired an entire generation of young players such as Osaka, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and teenager Coco Gauff.

Like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, Williams proved that African-American athletes can transcend their sport and become cultural and commercial icons. Williams’ estimated worth of $225 million makes her the only athlete to land on Forbes’ list of the richest self-made women under 40.

Unlike Jordan and Woods, however, Williams also has had to deal with sexism in addition to racism.

With her powerful build, Williams faced criticism throughout her career for not looking like women who have traditionally played the sport. Her hair and fashion choices have been routinely scrutinized, seemingly with an undercurrent of race, sex and class bias. She often has been cast as an angry black woman, someone who is seen as rude when she challenges convention or tries to stand up for herself.

One can’t blame Williams for letting the younger generation do the hard work now. Williams needs just one Grand Slam title to tie Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24. The window for doing so is closing and Williams hasn’t won a Grand Slam since she defeated Venus in the finals of the Australian Open in 2017.

“I’ve been definitely proudly stuck here, party of one,” she said Saturday in a Zoom. “So I’m pretty happy about it, but obviously I’m never satisfied. That’s been the story of my career, so it is what it is. I took a year and half off for a baby. I’ll never be satisfied until I retire. I’m never going to stop until I retire. That’s just my personality, that’s how I got to be here.”

Williams, like Jordan, gave up a lot in her single-minded pursuit of greatness. She laid the groundwork so that the next generation of athletes had the power, popularity and platform to speak out when they see something wrong.

And so Osaka is speaking out. And so is Gauff, who has been vocal about Black Lives Matter on Instagram.

This year’s U.S. Open might be being played inside a fan-less bubble because of the pandemic, but today’s young athletes understand that nothing can shelter them — or any of us — from the real world.

New York Sports