The Fearlessness of Naomi Osaka

In Friday’s “worst dressed at the Open” post, I flippantly claimed credibility as an arbiter of tennis fashion. Of course, anyone who reads this blog knows I have little credibility in fashion, or anything else, for that matter.

One of our blog readers, however, does bring some serious cred to the topic of fashion: Robin Hauck, founder and editor of the sleek and chic Misstropolis magazine. Robin may well be the coolest person I know—so cool she once landed on the list of Most Stylish Bostonians in The Boston Globe.

According to Robin, I was wrong (!) to nominate Naomi Osaka in the worst-dressed poll. Normally I brook no dissent on my blog, but seeing as I’m still waiting for my own Most Stylish nomination, I decided to ask Robin to elaborate. Man, did she ever set me straight.

Many thanks to her for this powerful post, running simultaneously on Misstropolis.

 

GAME. SET. MATCH.

Legendary New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham once said “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.”

This year, everyday life took a bye. It skipped the tournament completely. Look all you want, you won’t find the everyday life we took for granted as recently as February 1, when American Sofia Kenin beat Spain’s Garbine Muguruza in the finals of the 2020 Australian Open.

I wonder what Bill Cunningham, sitting on his bicycle with his camera around his neck looking at the deserted streets of New York City, would have said about this year’s realities. This year, the armor’s gotta be strong as hell, ‘cause it has a lot to battle against.

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For those who love sports and adore (dare I say worship?) the professionals who play them, athletes’ fashion choices take on outsized significance. Athletes enter the court, field or arena donning their chosen armor, indicating immediately which battle they’ve come to fight. The media responds, social channels go nuts and the messages conveyed by those style choices get debated sometimes for weeks on end. I could go on about Serena’s notorious 2018 tutu dress for days, if you want to go there.

Athletes leading the way

This season, NBA players don jerseys that bear messages where their names used to be, powerful missives like Say Their Names, Love Us, Anti-Racist, How Many More and Black Lives Matter. You cannot watch a game without reflecting on the urgency behind those words.

Members of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream led a coordinated demonstration in support of Black Lives Matter. Dream members wore black t-shirts in support of the opponent of Senator Kelly Loeffler, a part-owner of the team, who denounced the BLM movement. Other WNBA teams wore black t-shirts in support of the movement, despite warnings from the league against using clothing for political reasons.

For their season opener against the Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick added a patch bearing the name Fritz Pollard, the first black coach in the NFL, to his visor. Belichick said he was “honored to have worn this today and I appreciate the opportunity to recognize Fritz Pollard for all he’s done…”

Now serving, Naomi Osaka

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At the U.S. Open this year, in the fan-devoid stadiums, cheered on by bizarre Zoom-like digital fan zones, some players came in simple armor, simply to play tennis, like Sofia Kenin in basic Fila.

Some endured Nike’s bizarre nod to Andre Agassi’s 1990 neon explosion, like Victoria Azarenka who defeated the always fashion-notable, perennially chic Serena Williams in the semis.

But one player came to battle more monstrous opponents—police brutality, systemic racism, white silence—and she came to win. Both on the court and on the larger global stage, with a powerful message of solidarity with BLM, 22-year-old Naomi Osaka stood out. Ombre curls loose over her visor, Kobe Bryant jersey after her wins, color blocked bodysuit with the cut-out in the back, her unique, fearless style was on display on center court. But it was her “Not today, Covid” style—face masks bearing names of black Americans lost to police violence—that was the real armor.

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Osaka, whose Japanese and Haitian heritage makes her a proud IBPOC, has a slightly awkward and tentative public persona. She doesn’t savor the spotlight like Serena or charm the media like Lindsay Vonn or Alex Morgan. But with her deliberate and well-calibrated succession of seven face masks, she made it clear which battle she had come to fight, even as she methodically dominated every match, defeating every opponent she met on the court.

On September 13 she tweeted, “I would like to thank my ancestors because everytime I remember their blood runs through my veins I am reminded that I cannot lose.”

Each time she won, fans wondered whose name would grace the mask she’d wear to the next match. Her masks became part of her performance and in that way her armor became not just a shield but a weapon.

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In one interview, Osaka expressed dismay at the fact that the list of names far exceeded the number of possible matches, even if she made it all the way to the final. But each time she showed up to play, wearing giant headphones and Nike’s over-the-top, Agassi-inspired warm-up jackets, she brought widespread awareness to the name on her mask:

  • Breonna Taylor, the African American nurse shot dead by police who raided her apartment in Kentucky in March
  • Elijah McClain, the 23-year-old black man who died last year after police in Colorado restrained him with a chokehold that is now banned
  • Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man chased down and fatally shot by two white men while jogging through his Georgia neighborhood in February
  • Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old high school student fatally shot by George Zimmerman in Florida in 2012
  • George Floyd, murdered by officer Derek Chauven who knelt on his neck until he lost consciousness
  • Philando Castile, 32-year-old black man killed at a traffic stop by Hispanic officer Jeronimo Yanez in 2016
  • Tamir Rice, 12-year-old boy killed in Cleveland by officer Timothy Loehmann

Using the spotlight to her advantage

Like the NBA and WNBA players wearing messages on their shirts, like the women at the Golden Globes who wore black in support of the #metoo movement, Osaka respects and embraces the responsibility she has as a public figure in a global spotlight and weaponizes her style for good.

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What is style but confidence? What is real fashion but fearlessness, eclipsing the status quo and provoking thought?

“For me, I just want people to have more knowledge. I feel like the platform that I have right now is something that I used to take for granted and I just feel like I should be using it for something.”

For having the courage to give voice to those who can no longer speak for themselves, Naomi Osaka was the true style influencer of this year’s U.S. Open. Bill Cunningham knew real fashion played out on the street and that you don’t need a runway to have a fashion show. Keep your eye on the courts and you’ll see how a true style icon comes into her own, bouncing a little yellow ball while the world watches.

—Robin Hauck

Friday Fashion Face-off: The Worst Dressed at the 2020 US Open

This year’s weird but still wonderful US Open is behind us. The only thing left to do is award the prize for most fashion-challenged. Let’s get right to it!

Nominee #1: Naomi Osaka

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Yes, I know, you love Naomi. Hey, I love her, too. But does that mean we have to love her outfit? Does that mean we have to spare her the ignominy of a worst-dressed nomination? No. The Fashion Face-off must maintain its credibility as an impartial arbiter of tennis style.

It’s not even the color-block unitard that bothers me. Instead, I’m perplexed by the complete randomness of the shorts. These two items of clothing aren’t communicating with each other in any respect—style, fabric, color, cut, fit. Not a hint of coherence here.

Still, it was nice to see Osaka raise her third major trophy. And I’m seriously loving her hair.

Nominee #2: Victoria Azarenka

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Osaka’s opponent in the US Open final took the opposite approach. Azarenka’s top and shorts cohere to the point of being indistinguishable.

I don’t generally like rigid fashion rules, but I’m going to propose a limit of one screaming neon item of clothing per outfit. Rather than pile on even more pink, why not complement that shirt with a pair of shorts in a coordinating color? Or how about plain old white? Yeah, I know I said white is boring, but sometimes your poor, beleaguered eyeballs need a rest. Boring can be a virtue.

I kind of like her hair, though. It’s edgy and free-spirited and seems to suit the new Azarenka.

Nominee #3: Harry Connick, Jr.

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Just because you’re not a tennis player doesn’t mean you get a pass from the Fashion Face-off.

I like a comfy Henley as much as the next guy. It’s the perfect style for so many occasions. Walking in the woods on a crisp fall day. Apple picking. Blogging by the fire.

But when you’re performing “America the Beautiful” in the world’s largest tennis stadium, you might want to up your game.

Maybe the empty stands confused him. (Note to Harry: Just because no one’s in the seats doesn’t mean no one can see you.)

There you have it—the three worst-dressed people in Ashe Stadium. But who gets to go home with the prize????

 

Friday Fashion Face-off: Best-Dressed Woman at the 2020 US Open

What does it mean when someone keeps giving your tennis outfit side-eye? Can’t be good, right? But I was wearing a white top and peachy orange skirt. What’s wrong with that?

Nothing, that’s what. I looked perfect. Woman needs to get her eyes checked.

Speaking of looking perfect, feast your eyes on our best-dressed woman nominees for the 2020 US Open…

Nominee #1: Serena Williams

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What a pleasure to nominate Serena in the best-dressed category! I give Serena a pretty hard time in this blog, although to her credit, she never complains. Remember her tutu from two years ago? Ugh. Now, this is how you do the ballerina look. Classy all the way.

I initially wasn’t a fan of her hair pompoms. So silly and inappropriate for a 38-year-old woman, unless, of course, that woman is going twinsies with her daughter:

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How ridiculously cute is Olympia??? Now I want some pompoms, too.

Nominee #2: Tsvetana Pironkova

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It always seems a little unfair to have an off-the-rack tennis outfit competing against something custom-made for the athlete. Perhaps the Fashion Face-off should have separate categories, like “day wear” and “evening wear.” Or “clothes you and I might actually wear” and “catwalk tennis apparel.” But let’s be real. I can barely eke out one poll as it is.

The Bulgarian player, and recent mother, stays fresh and cool in this combo by Pironetic. I hadn’t heard of this brand, so I looked it up. Turns out it’s Pironkova’s own line of athletic wear. So not only is it not off-the-rack, it’s custom-made for her and by her. I really ought to do my research before I start tapping out these posts.

Anyhoo, I like that shade of blue. I like the contemporary plaid side panels on the shirt and matching built-in short. And I like the pleats that give the skirt movement without adding bulk. (Not making my butt look bigger is pretty much all I ask for in clothing these days.)

Hey, that’s two mothers in a row. I wonder if Victoria Azarenka will be next???

Nominee #3: Coco Gauff

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You didn’t really think Azarenka would be here, did you? But don’t worry. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing her on Friday.

Instead, we have crowd favorite Coco Gauff, fully redeeming herself from last year’s high-concept fashion flop. Remember that one? A washed-out homage to New York City’s tennis courts? I couldn’t believe New Balance would stick a 15-year-old in such a dreary dress.

Apparently New Balance heard me and decided to dress this girl like the superstar she is. With its asymmetric collar and metallic accents, this red number is as bold as her game.

Congratulations, Coco, for landing your first LYB best-dressed nomination! You’ve finally arrived!

Two polls for you today, so don’t forget to scroll…

 

 

 

Friday Fashion Face-off: Best-Dressed Man, 2020 US Open

The plaintive calls have become impossible to ignore: “We need a Fashion Face-off!”

Actually, only two people said that, but I think we can safely assume these desperate voices represent just the tip of the iceberg. So let’s steer this titanic blog into the perilous waters of men’s tennis fashion, shall we?

I have to be honest. It’s tough to do a Face-off without studmuffin Rafa and his debonair pal Roger in the mix. So many men wear clothes that don’t really constitute an outfit. It’s white shorts and a random top. I mean, I get it. Those are my go-to duds, too. But I’d like to think if millions of people were watching me, I’d try a little harder.

But fear not, bloglings. Yesterday, I plowed through online photos and unearthed a reasonable crop of candidates to choose from. (Yes, we’ve switched from a nautical to an agricultural metaphor. Try to keep up.)

 

Nominee #1: Sumit Nagal

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Wait…who?

I never heard of him either, but that’s the beauty of the Fashion Face-off. It’s the great equalizer. Ranking means nothing.

True, this isn’t the most outfitty of outfits. Navy shorts and a red top—is that really any different from what I was just complaining about a couple of paragraphs ago? I will argue it is, for the following reasons:

  • If you look closely, you’ll see a little dark edging on Nagal’s collar. If the edging were navy, it would definitely elevate this getup to outfit status. I will concede that it looks more black than navy, which, as we all know, would be a fashion faux-pas of the highest order, but maybe that’s a lighting issue affecting only the collar and not the shorts. That could happen, right?
  • The red on the underside of his cap matches his shirt.
  • The shorts are well cut and more revealing, an excellent trend started by Face-off fave Rafa.
  • I like Nagal’s tat sleeve, earring and necklace.
  • Nagal is one letter away from Nadal.

So, no, I am definitely not completely contradicting myself.

 

Nominee #2: Felix Auger-Aliassime

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I’m expecting a lot of pushback on this. The Andre Agassi-inspired line of Nike apparel is loud, no doubt about it. And most of the combinations worn at this tournament are, shall we say, ill-advised. This particular one, though, makes the cut, and not just because it’s fun to say Auger-Aliassime. The neutral bluish-gray shorts provide the solid foundation the busy shirt needs, and the shirt’s palette is a bit more muted than the rest of the Agassi line. A solid choice from the rising Canadian star.

 

Nominee #3: Reilly Opelka

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I know, I know. The beard. Just scroll down a bit so his head’s out of the frame…

See? A perfectly nice ensemble. Fila routinely makes our best-dressed list, with clothing that manages to be both classic and eye-catching. The 35th-ranked American looks sharp in the stripes. Now, if only someone would get him a razor…

 

Well, we did it. We got through an entire Best-Dressed Man post without Rafa or Roger.

Can this year get any stranger?

 

“Tennis” Tomorrow

In case you haven’t heard, a tennis tournament is starting tomorrow. Well, sort of. It’s a virtual tournament featuring top players, including Nadal, competing on PlayStation. Sixteen men and sixteen women will be taking part.

Action begins tomorrow at 9 a.m., ET. Supposedly Tennis.com will be streaming it live here:

https://www.tennis.com/pro-game/2020/04/watch-live-mutua-madrid-open-virtual-pro-video-game-tournament/88543/

I have no idea what we’ll actually see in the streaming. Presumably it will be more interesting to watch than Pong. Will we see the actual players? Hear them trash talking one another? I don’t know, but I’ll be tuning in to find out. I’ll take any tennis I can get.

My Review of “Different Strokes”

This morning, my husband, daughter and I were puttering around the kitchen, each of us foraging for breakfast and wearing that glass-eyed, slack-jawed expression that I’ve come to call Quarantine Face. Quarantine Face is what you get after far too many hours looking at the same walls with far too many hours still to go. A whole day’s worth of hours stretching out ahead of you, only broken up with food and dog walks.

But not even dog walks today because it’s raining and my dog detests the rain.

So…just food then.

To brighten the mood, I turned to my zombie-esque family and said, “Hey! TGI Friday!”

I was met with bitter, hollow laughs.

So, yes, I’m tired of quarantining, as I know you all are. What is one to do with a Friday to mark it as something different from, say, Tuesday? Your assignment, in the comments section, is to share the best thing you’ve done on lock-down…that doesn’t involve food. (Seriously, no food. I’ve already gained five pounds.)

But first, before you share your suggestion for a fabulous Friday night in the house, we should talk about that book I was telling you about in my last post, Cecil Harris’s Different Strokes: Serena, Venus, and the Unfinished Black Tennis Revolution.

I have to admit that I dragged my feet a little bit on getting started reading. The problem was not the book. Racial inequality in sports is a worthy subject, and Cecil Harris is a fantastic writer, as you saw in his guest post.

No, the problem is that I, as a comfortably sheltered white person, don’t always want my little bubble pierced. In fact, I almost never want my bubble pierced. I like my bubble. Most days, my bubble and I float along perfectly content, unaware that there is anything outside the bubble, other than a raging pandemic.

I’m not a complete moron, of course. I knew that blacks had been banned from competing and that courts had been segregated. I’d heard of Althea Gibson and even wrote about Arthur Ashe once in this blog. Harris does a nice job profiling the careers of trailblazers Gibson, Ashe and the Williams sisters.

But I’ve been sort of embubbled in thinking these inequalities were largely a thing of the past. Not so. As with other areas of society, racial laws may have changed but other systematic problems endure.

Harris exposes the unequal representation of blacks in the sport’s administrative ranks. No African American has officiated at a single’s final at the U.S. Open—an honor reserved for highly experienced “gold badge” officials—since 1993. Following a lawsuit alleging discrimination, New York’s attorney general required the USTA to create a new position to foster inclusion and diversity. The person the USTA hired? He ended up suing the organization for discrimination.

Blacks are underrepresented among players as well. Harris explains that the USTA devotes its development resources to training facilities and to young players whose parents will commit to the travel and expense of the junior tennis circuit. What the USTA fails to do is grow the game by bringing tennis to the masses. The cost of an elite Florida training academy (up to $80,000 a year) combined with the isolation a young person of color may feel as a minority at one of these centers help explain what keeps tennis a largely white sport.

A number of initiatives have been started to try to address this issue. Dale Caldwell, a former board member with the USTA, has begun laying the groundwork for a new minor league. Called the People Up tour, the circuit will offer players the chance to compete in tournaments closer to home. Tennis is a global sport, and players pay their own costs for travel, hotels, meals, and coaches, with no guarantee of actually earning any money. People Up gives players the opportunity to earn money and ranking points without the expense of travel, meaning tennis can remain a viable option for people without other financial backing.

And in 2018, Kamau Murray, coach of Sloane Stephens, opened the XS Tennis Village on Chicago’s South Side. Sited on the grounds of a former urban housing development, the center provides instruction and mentorship for youth who otherwise wouldn’t be able to develop their game.

Despite the problems that remain, I found Different Strokes an optimistic book, filled with stories of black athletes who beat the odds—and the leaders trying to improve those odds for the next generation. Definitely a good read as we wait for the return of the sport we love. (See how I reconstructed my bubble there?)

Now…what’s the most fun thing you’ve done during lock-down? And what new television show have you discovered? I just started watching Succession—most entertaining!

Serena’s Slam Quest

“How’s that three-posts-a-month resolution coming?” snarked a so-called friend the other day. Okay, I’ve fallen a little short on that, but in my defense, coronavirus. I mean, how can I be expected to work under these conditions?

Fortunately, there are writers out there who are way more professional than I am, writers who wouldn’t let a global pandemic stand in the way of quality tennis prose. One such writer is Cecil Harris whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, and many other publications.

Cecil has just come out with his new book, Different Strokes: Serena, Venus, and the Unfinished Black Tennis Revolution. As you might surmise from the title, it’s about the Williams sisters and other black tennis players, the strides they’ve made, and how much farther there is to go to achieve true equality in the sport we love.

Speaking strictly for myself, I could use a little more education on these matters. I plan to read Different Strokes over the weekend and blog about it next week. You probably have some time on your hands these days—why not download a copy for yourself so you can weigh in? (No, seriously. How many times are you going to organize that damn sock drawer? Let’s read a book, for cryin’ out loud.)

In the meantime, I asked Cecil if he’d be willing to write a guest post on Serena’s quest to beat Margaret Court’s Grand Slam record—and boy, did he ever come through! Keep on reading—you’re in for a treat.

(Don’t get too used to this level of professionalism, folks. Next week, it’s back to amateur hour.)

 

Serena Williams Faces Tougher Road, But Don’t Count Her Out
By Cecil Harris

Serena Williams’s quest to win a record-tying 24th major singles title has become tougher with the cancelation of Wimbledon because of the coronavirus pandemic. Wimbledon had not been canceled since 1940–45 because of World War II.

In this tennis year unlike any other, Serena may have only two more opportunities in 2020 to match Margaret Court’s record. Yet there is no guarantee that the U.S. Open will be played as scheduled from August 31 to September 13, and no guarantee that the French Open will take place as rescheduled during the final two weeks in September.

If you’re an optimist and a Serena fan, then surely you’ll root for tennis to return by September—not only to give Serena a chance to tie or surpass Court, but also because the French Open would be played when she turns 39 on September 26. In that case, her best birthday present could be the one she gives herself.

But if you’re a pessimist who roots for Serena, then you’re truly lamenting the removal of Wimbledon from the 2020 calendar. Serena’s incomparable serve and power game have enabled her to win seven singles titles on the famous grass courts. Wimbledon’s Centre Court is also where she crushed Maria Sharapova, 6-0, 6-1, to win the Olympic gold medal match in 2012.

Serena has also won seven Australian Opens and six U.S. Opens. Her fewest major titles have come on the slow red clay at the French Open—three.

However, that does not mean she couldn’t win in Paris again. A determined Serena has done remarkable things over the years. But her road will be tougher now because of the wave of young talent that has swept into women’s tennis in recent years—a wave that includes 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, who upset Serena in the French Open’s third round last year.

Serena and her elder sister, Venus, have inspired not one, but two generations of female pros to play a faster, quicker, hard-hitting and more athletic brand of tennis. Many of those players are beating the Williams sisters. Aside from Kenin’s victory in Paris, Naomi Osaka defeated her idol Serena in the 2018 U.S. Open final, and Bianca Andreescu beat Serena in the 2019 U.S. Open final.

Add to that list Coco Gauff, now 16, who conquered Venus in the first round of Wimbledon last year and the Australian Open this year, and it becomes clear that Father Time will not be Serena’s only formidable foe.

Yet no player has won more big matches or big tournaments than Serena. With 23 major titles, she’s the most celebrated champion in the Open era, which began in 1968 and made tennis a truly professional sport.

Someone really should tell Google about Serena’s achievement. Yahoo and Bing should learn, too. If you enter in a search engine “most major tennis titles in the Open era,” the answer you get is Roger Federer. That’s wrong. Serena has won 23 majors to Federer’s 20. Because of sexism in the algorithms, the search engines treat the men’s record as the default answer.

Serena deserves better. She also should not take a back seat to Court.

Court, a star in the 1960s and ’70s, and Serena played in completely different eras. But Serena is widely considered the superior player. Eleven of Court’s titles came at the Australian Open, including seven in a row from 1960–66. In those days, many tennis stars did not make the long round trip to Australia when it was summer Down Under and winter in North America and Europe, so Court often played against less challenging competition. In all, Court won 13 of her 24 majors before the Open era.

Serena, on the other hand, has played her entire career in professional tennis, against full-time players rather than a mix of part-timers and full-timers.

But Serena still yearns for the all-time record—because it is within her grasp. She can erase any doubt about who stands above all in women’s tennis history by winning one more major to tie Court or two more to own the record.

Serena’s most recent major title came at the 2017 Australian Open—while pregnant! She gave birth to daughter Alexis Olympia on September 1, 2017 and returned to tennis in March 2018. Since then, she has been foiled in her efforts to add to her list of majors:

  • 2018 Wimbledon: she lost to Angelique Kerber in the final
  • 2018 U.S. Open: she lost to Naomi Osaka in the final
  • 2019 Wimbledon: she lost to Simona Halep in the final
  • 2019 U.S. Open: she lost to Bianca Andreescu in the final

Also, in the 2019 Australian Open quarterfinals, Serena held four match points and led 5-1 in the third set against Karolina Pliskova before she sprained an ankle. Rather than call for a trainer, Serena continued to play with increasingly limited mobility. She failed to win another game.

Setbacks such as those would sap a lesser player’s confidence. But Serena is more likely to be hungrier to win in 2020 or 2021. Given her talent, determination and motivation, she can win any Grand Slam event she enters.

Although Serena is among her sport’s oldest competitors, she may have a potential advantage during this global sports shutdown: While other top players find it virtually impossible to practice because medical experts have mandated physical distancing to flatten the COVID-19 curve, Serena can practice against another future Hall of Famer at almost any time.

As long as Serena and Venus stay on opposite sides of the net, that’s more than enough physical distancing. The sisters can keep each other’s game fine-tuned until competitive tennis returns.

Nobody knows exactly when that will be. But if Serena has taught us anything in a stellar career that has spanned four decades, it is this: Never, ever count her out.

Cecil Harris is the author of Different Strokes: Serena, Venus, and the Unfinished Black Tennis Revolution (University of Nebraska Press).

Australian Open Worst Dressed, with Bonus Academy Award Poll

Have no fear. I didn’t forget about the worst-dressed Australian Open players, as much as I might like to. There really were some doozies this year, although I suspect our first nominee will run away with this thing. Continue reading “Australian Open Worst Dressed, with Bonus Academy Award Poll”

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