“Thanks For Being You Naomi and Coco”

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Photo by Bill Simons

Bill Simons

San Jose

Coco Gauff displayed amazing speed. Her athleticism was on fire. Her serve was lethal. She dug balls out of the corner. She wavered, but ultimately was clutch.

Naomi Osaka had few answers. Yes, the Japanese-Haitian superstar who’s won four Slams stormed back from a 1-5, 40-0 second-set deficit and saved seven match points. But hot Coco just kept her cool, retained her dominance, and confidently won 6-4, 6-4.

But that was not the story of this match. In the front row of the south stands, a young fan named Carlos with multiple tattoos and wearing a Lebron James jersey smiled and held up a sign with bright rainbow colors that read, “Thanks For Being You, Naomi and Coco.”

The simple yet poignant message captured the essence of American tennis at its best.

After all, there is an incredible tradition, particularly in women’s tennis, of players being themselves: think Althea Gibson, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Serena and Venus, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and so many more.

Recently, both Gauff and Osaka have been fearless, outspoken and true to themselves. Osaka was whimsical as a kid. But at the 2018 US Open, when Serena imploded, she survived the most tumultuous Slam final in history. Then she spoke out for both racial justice and mental wellness – wow! She’s just 24.

And Gauff has hardly been a wallflower. Long the most appealing teen in the game, she gave an incredible speech in Del Ray on race and dignity. She’s spoken out for abortion rights, gender equality and tolerance. She adeptly puts things in  perspective. Life isn’t about things and status and trophies, it’s about you as a person – your character. 

Osaka and Gauff both have an “it” factor. They are two of the WTA’s most shining stars, and people love them in large measure because they are who they are.  

After her win, Coco told the crowd, “There was so much love…I could feel the energy. Really it was one of the most amazing crowds…both people were equally supported.” Then she referred to the fan’s message. She said, “I think that’s probably the best sign I’ve ever seen – thank you for that…As an athlete, I feel like people want us to win all the time, but seeing signs like that definitely helps a lot…it makes us feel really appreciated. She told Inside Tennis, “I saw the sign pre-match…[and] I looked at it sometimes during the match and it helped a little bit because it made me realize not to focus so much on results.”

As for tennis’s history of leadership, she told the fans, “It definitely means a lot to have trailblazers on the wall [at the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic] – especially Serena and Venus, and Billie Jean King…Without them I definitely wouldn’t be playing…I feel like Naomi and I, at least on the tennis side, are the future…I just feel like me and her…really speak out on these issues – and it’s not common…I’m glad that you guys actually support us and support what we say, and care about us no matter how we do.” 

Naomi said, “After the match I went and saw really cute little kids asking for autographs and, you know, they have hair like Coco and I just thought it was really cool because they’re definitely going to have that model [in Coco] to look up to.”

Naomi said she’ll never forget that Coco was the first player to text her after she pulled out of the 2021 French Open. Osaka, who has played in the Bay Area since she was 15, has never gotten beyond the third round here. But she said she wasn’t that upset by her loss today. After all, this was her first tourney since the French Open in May – she felt both rusty and sore. Plus, she added, “I’ve been working on not regretting things… I’ve learned a lot the last two years about regrets, and I’ve also learned that…you have to keep pushing forward…There’s no way I’m ever going to be perfect at anything, so I have to keep learning, and I’m going to make mistakes.”

Open, vulnerable, brave and outspoken, it’s easy to see why fans adore Naomi and Coco just for being Naomi and Coco.

Photo by Harjanto Sumali
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