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On George Floyd, racism, Naomi Osaka’s activism, and the struggles of Ashe, Gibson and Noah

Decades ago, black players had to concede contested points to their white opponents, and also had to pick up the balls during changeovers. In college tennis, white student-athletes dined in restaurants while their black teammates had to wait for a sandwich in their cars.

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Even before them, though, Zina and Lori gave us something to remember at Wimbledon, where the former reached the final and the latter upset Steffi Graf in the first round, whereas in the men’s field only MaliVai Washington broke through at SW19 by reaching the 1996 final after a comeback from 1-5 down in the semis against Todd Martin. Washington then lost to Krajicek, and once said: “It’s very hard for a black kid to identify with a white tennis player. I mean, who is he more likely to identify with, Michael Jordan and Walter Payton or Boris Becker and Ivan Lendl?”

 

In 2006, James Blake, the son of an African American dad and of an English mum, reached the highest ranking for a black player in the new millennium at N.4 – he is now the director of the Miami Open.

Althea Gibson once said: “In sports, you’re more or less accepted for what you do than for what you are.” She also added: “No, I don’t see myself as a representative for my people. I think about myself and nobody else…” Another time she was been asked whether she was proud of the Jackie Robinson comparisons that were thrown her way after winning Wimbledon in 1957, to which she replied: “I’m not aware from a racial standpoint… I’m a tennis player, not a Negro tennis player.”

On the other hand, Ashe once said: “I remember that there were some rules meant for Southern black kids. When you were unsure about whether a ball was in or out, and you were playing against a white opponent, you had to call it in. [Editor’s note: I spent some time studying in Tulsa, in Oklahoma, and back then matches were self-regulated at the university level, so I remember my embarrassment for having to call some lightning serves on hardcourts, where the ball leaves no signs – I didn’t want to be thought of as a cheater, but at the same time I didn’t want to give away any points.] Another rule was: if you were serving before a changeover, at the end of the game you had to pick up each ball and give it to your opponent when you walked past him. Doctor Robert Walter Johnson, our coach [at UCLA, in Los Angeles], knew that we were going to a hostile place, so he wanted our behaviour to be irreprehensible. It would take me years to get over such an emotional toll of suppressed rage and frustration!”

One time, Ashe was a guest of mine when I was the Tournament Director in Florence, where I had also organised an exhibition for his delightful wife (a professional photographer), and he said: “Every day I close my eyes and pray that people won’t be as cruel to my children as they have been to me. What drives me mad is walking into someone from my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, only for them to say that they saw me play at Byrd Park when I was a kid. Well, no one could have seen me play there, because at the time Byrd Park was open only to white people!”

Yannick Noah, the last French to win at Roland Garros in 1983 (and the last French man to win a Slam altogether), was born in Yaoundé, in Cameroon, and talked about a different brand of racism early on in his career: “I never had any issues with being black, but the Cameroonian Federation could never stand me. The reason? My mother was white. I’m not an ambassador for any race or country precisely because of that: my mother being white and my father being black… inside I don’t feel neither white nor black. I think I did more for people by winning the French Open than I could have by going to South Africa to give speeches against apartheid. Maybe someday I’ll change my mind, perhaps when I’m 35, but I don’t think it will happen.”

However, when Noah changed his hairstyle to his signature dreadlocks, he noticed that white people in France had a harder time accepting him: “All of a sudden, I wasn’t a tennis player anymore. I was black and I was a nobody. People’s reactions became completely different. Nothing terrible, nothing that could lead to a physical fight, just different. And I’ve actually never had any issues being black here [in America]. It’s like Larry Holmes says: ‘If you’re black and you have money, then you’re not black.’

Even this last quote has some counterarguments, though, because, as Felix Auger-Aliassime said, “if you are driving a Mercedes, cops tend to stop you, like they did with my father, because they think that you probably stole it.”

Some things are undeniably changing, though. Katrina Adams, a former player who reached the 67th spot in the WTA Rankings and a doubles semi-finalist at Wimbledon in 1988 (partnering Zina Garrison) became the first African American USTA president in 2015, and also the very first to get a second term, thanks to changes in federal rules.

Even more notably, tennis now has a spokesperson like Naomi Osaka. The Japanese, currently ranked third in the world, has enjoyed a quick rise to superstardom since winning her first title at Flushing Meadows, and is currently the highest-paid female athlete in the world, surpassing Serena Williams with estimated revenues of 37.4 million dollars. Over time, she has become one of the most outspoken athletes on the issues of inequality, racism and social justice, and even more so after the murder of George Floyd, joining protesters in St. Paul and Minneapolis and publicly backing Black Lives Matter. She explained her decision by penning an op-ed for Esquire: “When I saw the horrific video of George Floyd’s murder and torture at the hands of a cop and his three colleagues, my heart ached. I felt a call to action. Enough was finally enough.”

Throughout her winning campaign in New York, Osaka wore seven different masks honoring victims of police brutality, ending with Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy murdered by a policeman in Cleveland because he wielded a replica toy gun at a Rec Center in Cleveland. “George was murdered at the hands of men paid to protect him. And for every George, there is a Brianna, a Michael, a Rayshard,” she had written in Esquire. A few days before the tournament began, she withdrew from her semifinal match at the Cincinnati Premier event (also held at Flushing Meadows this year) as a show of support for the Milwaukee Bucks’ collective decision to boycott an NBA Playoffs game after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha – the organizers were forced to cancel play for the day, moving the semifinals to the next while re-admitting her into the draw. “Being ‘not racist’ is not enough. We have to be anti-racist.”

Naomi Osaka (@usopen on Twitter)

Osaka’s ethnic and cultural backgrounds are unique, and her Japanese heritage has come into play as well. “Osaka is grudgingly accepted because she’s hafu – the daughter of a Japanese woman and a Haitian man,” noted The Guardian. “And while that technically means she’s mixed race, recent jokes from a pair of Japanese comedians who said she was ‘too sunburned’ and ‘needed some bleach.’” However, she is positive that discrimination is in the minority (she was chosen to be the face of the 2020 Summer Olympics, after all), and has come to embrace her multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan background as a vehicle of change: “But I am proud, too, of the small part I have played in changing perceptions and opinions. I love the thought of a biracial girl in a classroom in Japan glowing with pride when I win a Grand Slam. I really hope that the playground is a friendlier place for her now that she can point to a role model and be proud of who she is. And dream big.”

At the same time, though, she admitted that dealing with racism in her home country had always been difficult for her. Maybe this is the reason why Osaka hasn’t come into her own as a civil rights leader sooner. This is the same girl who was robbed of the sweetness of triumph when Serena Williams launched a tirade against Ramos, the chair umpire of their 2018 US Open final, deeming him a sexist after he imposed her two penalty points. Williams called him “a thief” and claimed he should apologize to her while Osaka cried in her chair. Her behavior was out of order to say the least, but it should remember that an Australian newspaper, the Herald Sun, published a cartoon of her outburst depicting her stomping on her racquet while the umpire asked her opponent: “Can you just let her win?” In the vignette, Williams’ lips were full and protruding, while Osaka was a blonde Caucasian.

However, the latter facet shows us that, while the road is still long, a lot of mileage has been covered already, because a final between black players under the aegis of a black USTA President (at the time) proves that the days when it was customary to concede to a white opponent on every close call are indeed gone, both temporally and in our collective psyche. Ironically, the fact that Serena Williams was more or less universally criticized for her unsportsmanlike behavior is a testament to the fact that right and wrong can be debated without prejudice, at least in tennis – Madison Keys, Frances Tiafoe, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Sloane Stephens are living proofs of how the game has become more fair and inclusive.

As for the wider social context, Naomi Osaka, the Williams sisters and Katrina Adams boast a platform that is more resonant than any megaphone Arthur Ashe never had. So, if things do not change for good also because of their influence and contribution, then they might never change. That would be a harsh defeat for the whole of humankind.

Translated by Tommaso Villa

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WIMBLEDON: Day Six Talking Points world no.1 Iga Świątek left stunned by Alizé Cornet

Alize Cornet shocking Iga Swiatek was one of many eventful things that happened on day six of Wimbledon.

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Saturday at Wimbledon was extremely eventful, to say the least.

 

Let’s start with Poland’s Iga Świątek who was riding high on a 37-match unbeaten streak.

She was the favourite going into her third-round encounter with veteran Frenchwoman Alizé Cornet.

But she went down meekly in straight sets 6-4, 6-2.

Having dominated the WTA Tour in 2022 since the announcement of then world number one, Ash Barty’s retirement.

This loss came as a shock to the tennis world.

For Cornet, she experienced euphoria at Wimbledon 2014 when she stunned then world number one Serena Williams on Court One.

And on the very same court, at the very same venue, Cornet’s golden moment came again.

The 31-year-old will play Australia’s Ajla Tomljanović next, who herself shocked last year’s French Open champion Barbora Krejčíková.

She beat the Czech in straight sets 2-6, 6-4, 6-3.

Bad tempered Kyrgios sees off Tsitsipas

Australia’s Nick Kyrgios could see himself fortunate to still be involved in this year’s championships, after this week’s spitting incident with a fan.

He was again at the centre of more controversy against Stefanos Tsitsipas, as he abused umpire Damien Dumusois with a barrage of criticism and abuse.

The Frenchman was within his rights to punish the Australian, but didn’t.

Meanwhile, the Greek went down in four sets 6-7 (2-7), 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (9-7).

And after the match, Tsitsipas called his counterpart “an evil person” and a “bully” and that “something needs to be done about him.”

Rafa cruises through, but Brits crash out

Spain’s Rafa Nadal, a two-time champion at Wimbledon, continues his quest to add a third to his trophy cabinet.

As well as a 23rd Grand Slam, and even more significantly, perhaps realise an unprecedented dream of winning the calendar Grand Slam.

Having won this year’s Australian and French Open’s, Rafa’s hopes are still alive.

He downed Italy’s Lorenzo Sonego in a convincing straight sets triumph, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.

Next up for the Spaniard is the in-form grass-courter Botic van de Zandschulp who reached the semi-finals at Queen’s.

Elsewhere, Liam Broady went down to Australian Alex de Minaur in straight sets 6-3, 6-4. 7-5.

And Katie Boulter disappointed against Serena’s conqueror Harmony Tan, losing 6-1, 6-1.

On Centre Court, Amanda Anisimova stunned fellow American Coco Gauff, winning 6-7 (4-7), 6-2, 6-1.

And Simona Halep is also through.

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(VIDEO) Nick Kyrgios And Stefanos Tsitsipas’ Controversial Contest Headlines Day Six At Wimbledon

Ubaldo Scanagatta dissects Nick Kyrgios and Stefanos Tsitsipas’ controversial third round contest.

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Ubitennis CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta reviews day six as Nick Kyrgios and Stefanos Tsitsipas were involved in a dramatic match on Court One with Kyrgios winning in four sets. There was also the exit of world number one Iga Swiatek, who’s 37 match winning streak came to an end and there was victory for Rafael Nadal as he cruised into the second week. Below is a video of Ubaldo dissecting play on day six at Wimbledon:

 

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Wimbledon Daily Preview: The First Sunday of Wimbledon is No Longer A Day of Rest

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A look at the grounds of The All England Club (twitter.com/wimbledon)

Historically, tradition has dictated the first Sunday of Wimbledon sees no play.  But that changes this year, with fourth round singles matches spread across Sunday and Monday.  This marks the end of Manic Monday, when those matches were all scheduled on the second Monday of the tournament.

 

Sunday’s schedule is headlined by a clash between two top 10 seeds, who are also two of the sport’s fastest rising stars, as Carlos Alcaraz takes on Jannik Sinner.  Three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic looks to extend his 24-match win streak at Wimbledon against Tim van Rijthoven, who is an undefeated 8-0 at tour level this past month.  And in what should be a matchup full of guile and finesse, Ons Jabeur faces Elise Mertens.

Throughout the tournament, this preview will analyze the day’s five most prominent matches, while highlighting the other notable matches on the schedule.  Sunday’s play begins at 11:00am local time.


Frances Tiafoe (23) vs. David Goffin – Second on No.2 Court

Both players have advanced rather comfortably to this stage, dropping only one set each.  Tiafoe is vying for his second Major quarterfinal, while Goffin is vying for his fourth, and his second at The Championships.  Tiafoe’s far-superior power game would seemingly make him the favorite over Goffin on this surface.  But ahead of this tournament, Frances was only 5-4 at SW19, compared to a 12-7 record for David.  And their head-to-head has been quite one-sided.  Goffin leads Tiafoe 4-1, which includes a four-set win in the second round of the last Slam in Paris.  The American’s only victory came three years ago in Miami.  And David owns a much better record this season (25-16 compared to 15-13).  Over the course of five sets, Goffin’s speedy defensive skills may be enough to propel him to his fifth victory over Tiafoe.


Jelena Ostapenko (12) vs. Tatjana Maria – 1:00pm on No.1 Court

Ostapenko is looking to advance to the quarterfinals or better at this event for the third time.  And the 2017 Roland Garros champion is in the midst of a strong season, with a 23-11 record and a title run in Dubai.  And just last week, Jelena was a finalist in Eastbourne.  In a wide-open quarter of the draw, where she is the only player ranked above No.97 in the world, Ostapenko is a considerable favorite to reach her second Wimbledon semifinal.  And before this week, Maria was on nine-match losing streak at Slams.  A year ago during this event, Tatjana was giving birth to her second child.  But she’s returned to the tour with a vengeance in 2022, accumulating 34 match wins at all levels.  Her game is well-suited for grass, and she upset Maria Sakkari in the last round.  In their first career meeting, Ostapenko’s current form and aggressive groundstrokes make her the favorite.  But her game can also be quite unreliable, and Jelena can rack up unforced errors in large bunches.  If she does, a Maria upset is entirely possible.


Carlos Alcaraz (5) vs. Jannik Sinner (10) – Second on Centre Court

19-year-old Alcaraz and 20-year-old Sinner are extremely inexperienced on this surface.  Before this tournament, Carlos had only played two matches on grass, while Jannik was 0-4 in the main draw of grass court events.  Yet both have proven this week that they are formidable opposition on this surface.  Alcaraz survived a tight five-setter in the first round against Jan-Lennard Struff, and Sinner earned wins over both Stan Wawrinka and John Isner.  They’ve played once at tour-level, with Carlitos winning two tight sets last November in Bercy on an indoor hard court.  Both players are having very strong seasons, with Alcaraz owning a record of 35-4, and Sinner 30-8.  But Sinner’s game seems a better fit for this surface, so I give him the slight edge to prevail in what should be another close matchup between these two.


Ons Jabeur (3) vs. Elise Mertens (24) – Third on No.1 Court

Their paths to this matchup could not be much different.  Jabeur has only dropped 13 games across six sets, while Mertens came back from a set down in both her first two matches, saving two match points in the second round.  However, in their only previous meeting at last year’s US Open, it was Mertens who was victorious in straight sets.  Elise has advanced beyond this round of a Major three times, though she’s 3-8 in the round of 16 at Slams, and has stalled in this round at the last three.  Ons is now a two-time Major quarterfinalist, and is looking to match her result from this event a year ago.  Jabeur is currently playing with great confidence, and is an excellent 33-9 on the season.  I like her chances of evening her record against Mertens on Sunday.


Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Tim van Rijthoven (WC) – Third on Centre Court

Van Rijthoven has come out of nowhere during this grass court season.  Prior to last month, the 25-year-old had never played a main draw match at tour-level, as multiple serious injuries had derailed his career.  Yet as a wild card ranked outside the top 200, he became the champion in s-Hertogenbosch, where he defeated three top 20 players (Fritz, Auger-Aliassime, Medvedev).  And now in his Major debut, he’s taken out two seeded players (Opelka, Basilashvili).  But can he challenge the 20-time Major champion?  Tim certainly has plenty of confidence right now, and has a booming serve that can earn him some easy holds.  He’s struck 53 aces across his first three matches.  I would not be surprised if he takes a set off Djokovic, but I would be truly shocked if he can take three.  Novak has not lost at this event since 2017, and has solidified himself as the best grass court player of the last decade.  And in his last two rounds, he surrendered only seven games per match.


Other Notable Matches on Sunday:

Caroline Garcia vs. Marie Bouzkova – Garica survived a third-set tiebreak in the first round, then defeated two seeded players in straight sets (Emma Raducanu and Shuai Zhang).  Bouzkova took out three straight Americans thus far (Collins, Li, Riske), and was just 3-12 in the main draw of Majors prior to this fortnight.  When they played on grass last year in Birmingham, Marie prevailed 6-3, 6-0.

Jule Niemeier vs. Heather Watson – For 30-year-old Watson, this is her first appearance in the round of 16 at a Major.  22-year-old Niemeier had never won a main draw match at a Slam before this run.  Earlier this year in Monterrey, Heather overcame Jule in a third-set tiebreak.

Cameron Norrie (9) vs. Tommy Paul (30) – This is Norrie’s first appearance in the round of 16 at a Slam, after previously going 0-5 in the third round.  This is also Paul’s debut in this round at a Slam, coming off two quarterfinals on grass last month.  Cam is 2-1 against Tommy, with all three matches taking place on hard courts.

Jamie Murray and Venus Williams (WC) vs. Jonny O’Mara and Alicia Barnett (WC) – Jamie and Venus prevailed in three sets in a highly-entertaining first round match on Friday.  O’Mara and Barnett are British wild cards who upset the No.5 seeds in their opening round.

Nicolas Mahut and Shuai Zhang (3) vs. Jack Sock and Coco Gauff – Three of the four players in this match advanced to the third round in singles.  The outlier, Mahut, participated in one of the most famous matches in Wimbledon history, which went to 70-68 in the fifth, and also won the men’s doubles title here in 2016.


Sunday’s full Order of Play is here.

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