There is a poignancy in the current moment in women’s tennis. Naomi Osaka learned from the best, and then ended another one of Serena Williams’ evanescent chances to tie Margaret Court’s 24 record Grand Slam singles titles.
Osaka’s debut Slam victory at the 2018 U.S. Open did the same thing. Williams was just in her third Slam back on tour after the birth of her daughter, Olympia. The record seemed well within reach. And now? Well.
Osaka’s rise is thanks to excellence and deconstruction. But always, always a genuine respect. It is always difficult to see a great player, if not the greatest ever, lose a few miles off her fastball. But Williams can look across the net to Osaka and see a victor that is part of her own impressive legacy, and not many truly great athletes can say that.
Osaka took Williams out in two sets at the Australian Open in a semifinal on Wednesday. Williams had three dominant games, and then it was clear her footwork wasn’t quick enough to reach Osaka’s powerful strokes. Yet there is a young woman of color who picked up a racket after idolizing Serena, who trained to a professional level after studying Williams, and who spoke out against injustice last summer after following Williams’ words on race and equality.
And here is where Williams’ legacy may be most profound, in encouraging the sisterhood of athletes. Professional tennis has been the most successful sport for women for decades now. And for many years it was really the only sport where a mid-tier player could earn a professional wage.
And here is where these two are really able to make a difference, in supporting other women’s leagues.
Last summer, Williams made an investment in LA’s Angel City, the NWSL franchise. This year, Osaka followed suit, announcing her move on social media and framing it in terms of advocacy.
“The women who have invested in me growing up made me who I am today, I don’t know where I would be without them. Throughout my career I’ve always received so much love from my fellow female athletes so that’s why I am proud to share that I am now a owner of @TheNCCourage,” Osaka wrote on Twitter.
Now, maybe this doesn’t seem like a big deal at first. But oh, dear reader, it is.
Women are pitted against each other in sports arenas and off. Often, earning a platform has meant protecting it from others. The idea that there are enough platforms to go around just hasn’t always been true, whether it is in tennis or a corporate boardroom.
Now, you have two women in tennis who can be big names and big donors. And really, tennis has historically been about helping other women’s leagues. Billie Jean King and a group of rebels started the WTA in a big-stakes bid for financial independence. It worked — Forbes listed Williams’ net worth at $225 million last fall. Osaka has already earned over $17 million in prize money.
Back in 1999 when the USWNT was trying to force U.S. Soccer into going for bigger World Cup venues, King was on speed dial for Julie Foudy and Mia Hamm. King had started World TeamTennis to create a co-ed pro league, and has always been thinking creatively about inclusion. Women’s team sports have often struggled for attention and viewership in a way that individual sports like tennis and gymnastics hadn’t.
Often, those leagues have lacked the investment and backing that men’s leagues have, as well as being burdened by the expectation they should be immediately successful and if not, were dubbed failures.
So to see Williams and Osaka using their literal winnings to invest in the NWSL, where soccer players are laboring to translate their national team success into a sustainable league, is really a continuation of the work of King and others.
You can even call it a legacy.