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Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka’s texts are the female empowerment we need

In the latest issue of Harper’s Bazaar, Serena Williams revealed that she had reached out to Naomi Osaka, her opponent in last year’s U.S. Open final, and apologized.

Osaka’s first major win was overshadowed by the swirl of controversy surrounding the match. Some called Serena a sore loser with an uncontrollable temper. Others labeled umpire Carlos Ramos sexist for penalizing Williams three times for her coach’s sideline actions. And, of course, her subsequent “outburst.”

Cumulatively, the penalties cost her a game, leading Williams to call the umpire a “thief.”

The debacle also set off a national conversation about the uneven standards for female and male athletes. Even tennis legend Billie Jean King chimed in: “When a woman is emotional, she’s hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ and there are no repercussions,” she said.

“Thank you, Serena for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same.”

For reference, the famously hot-headed Nick Kyrgios was acting out during his second-round Wimbledon match with Nadal. But instead of receiving a fine, he was simply told to “stop it,” which many fans were quick to point out was unfair.

As a new mother who wanted to set a good example for her daughter, Olympia, the accusation especially stung.

Serena recalls the confrontation between the umpire, who only two years earlier had issued a warning to her older sister Venus for the same supposed infraction: “I approach [the umpire] and emphatically state the truth: that I wasn’t looking at my coach. ‘I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose.'” 

After losing the next point, Serena smashed her racket and was subsequently penalized. She recounted, “I call him a thief; I again demand an apology. I tell him he is penalizing me for being a woman… He responds by issuing a third violation and takes a game from me.”

Suddenly, Serena was down 5-3 in the second set and one game away from losing. After the game, which she would go on to lose 6-2, 6-4, she was fined $17,000. But it wasn’t losing or getting a fat fine that rubbed Serena the wrong way. According to the tennis champion, what bothered her the most was the media-engineered narrative of her versus Osaka.

So, after “searching for answers” and seeing a therapist, she decided to reach out to the person who “deserved it the most.” She shared her e-mail to Osaka with Harper’s Bazaar:

“Hey, Naomi! It’s Serena Williams. As I said on the court, I am so proud of you and I am truly sorry. I thought I was doing the right thing in sticking up for myself. But I had no idea the media would pit us against each other. I would love the chance to live that moment over again…”

Wait, there’s more.

“I am, was, and will always be happy for you and supportive of you. I would never, ever want the light to shine away from another female, specifically another black female athlete. I can’t wait for your future, and believe me I will always be watching as a big fan! I wish you only success today and in the future. Once again, I am so proud of you. All my love and your fan, Serena.”

Osaka would then humbly respond, “People can misunderstand anger for strength because they can’t differentiate between the two. No one has stood up for themselves the way you have and you need to continue trailblazing.”

That’s the kind of support we need between two of the best female athletes in the world. So many times, women are pitted against each other in their already-more-difficult climb to the top.

As Serena noted, “This incident—though excruciating for us to endure — exemplified how thousands of women in every area of the workforce are treated every day.” My mom has told me exactly that from her experience: women at her law firm were set up to compete with one another, not support.

It’s important to show that there can be multiple women at the height of their sport, who can support each other without animosity. In other words, getting to the top doesn’t have to mean bringing another woman down.

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