Champions of Compassion

by Kate Reeves, LiveGirl High School Mentor

All those who watched the U.S. Open women’s final match were probably struck with a range of emotions.  For those that did not watch, this was not your average tennis match. Serena Williams was first given a warning for possible coaching, then had a point taken away for breaking her racket, a US Open Code Violation.  Williams, still upset about the accusal of being coached earlier, said to the umpire, “How dare you question my character. I've never cheated in my life.” and proceeded to call him a “thief” for which she received a game penalty for verbal abuse.  Her opponent, Naomi Osaka, played an exceptional game, and despite being given one point and one game, fought with everything she had the rest of the match and went on to defeat her idol Serena Williams in the U.S. Open 2018 Women’s Final.

Obviously, neither losing or winning the way they did was ideal for either competitor.  In Serena’s case, she probably felt she was stripped of a point and game she could have won, and perhaps felt her entire mindset was disrupted from the start. In Osaka’s case, she probably discredited her truly incredible victory over a tennis icon by telling herself that Serena was inhibited from maximizing her potential.

Initially, the Trophy Celebration was the most heartbreaking victory ceremony I’ve ever watched. The crowd booed reporter Tom Rinaldi when he began the introduction.  Osaka covered her face and tears with her visor. Tears escaped down the solemn faces of both players. The crowd continued to boo as Rinaldi asked Williams the first question.  It was unfortunate, really, that in the midst of Osaka’s apparent disappointment, the masses were not more empathetic. They chose to use their voices in a way that only affirmed Osaka’s doubts of winning fairly, and likely made her feel alienated and unsupported in a moment where they should be roaring in applause.  This was the culmination of years of hard work. This was her dream of living, and beating, her role model. This was history: the first Japanese American to reach and then win a Grand Slam singles final. As I sat, watching Naomi’s smile-less face, I was angry. This should be her moment to shine, and the entire crowd is ignoring the value in all of that.

Yet in the midst of this uncomfortably sad ceremony, there was a moment of inspiration.  When the microphone was passed to Serena, she declined further questioning and instead spoke firmly to her loyal fans saying, “I just want to tell you guys, she played well, and this is her first Grand Slam. Let's not boo anymore. Let's be positive. Congratulations, Naomi.”  

The booing ceased and was replaced with applause.  Both players accepted their respective awards and held them up with a strong embrace.

I am not implying that the way this event ended was perfect – in fact, it certainly was not.  I don’t know who is to blame for derailing the match from a healthy competition to one of tears and regrets.  But the point is, we don’t always have to assign blame. Athletes make mistakes. Umpires make mistakes. We all make mistakes.  It can be hard not to let emotions get in the way in critical times or to know what the right call in quickly fleeting moments. So to command a crowd to quit the bitter, unproductive jeers and start being respectful is a brave act that shows signs of a strong leader.  It showed Serena’s ability to be the bigger person despite being in an aggravating situation in which she was called out for something that other athletes do frequently, and yet are not penalized for.

These concepts of being the bigger person, ignoring the blame, and instead focusing on the positive apply for more than sports.  They should apply to politics. They should apply to life. We find ourselves in a society that is so quick to blame, and it often blinds us from seeing true victories in front of our eyes.  If more people can show the kind of compassion that Serena did for Osaka, if more leaders can direct negative energy into a force of positivity, if we can recognize instances where supporting one cause is not mutually exclusive with supporting another, we will create a society that works together instead of against each other.  

Prior to playing each other in this match, Osaka had been asked what her message for Williams was.  Her response, “I love you”, stunned the crowd and the world of tennis. But for Osaka, it was not confusing or stunning to love her competitor.  On the contrary, competing with someone she admired gave her motivation to succeed. Not only did Osaka prove to the world tonight that she was a tennis champion, but both of these strong, empowered women proved that they were champions of love, champions of compassion.  

So, now I ask of you, young leaders, who else will take on that title?