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Our Sporting Heroes: Role Models from the World of Tennis

The last blog in in our “Sporting Heroes” series looked at what we can learn from sports people with depression. This included Naomi Cavaday, a mental health ambassador for the LTA who retired from professional tennis to prioritise her health. To see what else we can learn from the tennis world, we’re highlighting contemporary players who make great role models.

Played in ones and twos, with sponsorship deals contributing to large chunks of income, tennis lends itself to big personalities. Moreover, tournaments in the singles game are more lucrative, amplifying these individuals even further. It may be the case that this opens them up to an unfair level of scrutiny; commentators often accuse players of having a “bad attitude” depending on their reactions to match outcomes and the press. However, it also presents the opportunity for acts of humility, confidence and kindness to be amplified all the more.

Role Models in Contemporary Tennis

Naomi Osaka

Tennis fans may love big names but they also love to support the underdog. It’s exciting, it makes for a great story… and it means they get more tennis for their ticket money! For many top players, however, it can be highly frustrating when their fans let the atmosphere favour their opponent. Thankfully the third round of the 2019 US Open saw something special take place. It’s something which inspired us to pick the first of our tennis role models.

When 15 year old Cori “Coco” Gauff faced world no.1 Naomi Osaka, no-one was surprised at the immense support she received from the crowd. This rising star was on home ground and it was also her first time playing the tournament’s biggest stadium. It was the icing on top of an incredible year of tennis, and everyone knew it.

Other than Coco herself, one of the people perhaps most aware of the significance of the match was her opponent. However as the crowd roared for Gauff, Naomi Osaka remained unflustered and won the match in two sets. She was seeded to win, after all!

As the players met at the net for the customary handshake and friendly hug, Osaka recognised Gauff’s emotion and made an “instinctive” decision. Osaka comforted her young opponent and, instead of preparing for her on-court winner’s interview, she convinced Gauff to share it with her.

“I’m going to learn a lot from this match – she’s been so sweet to me.”

Through this action, Naomi Osaka gave Coco Gauff the chance to make a “positive statement” of her performance. This meant she could thank her fans from the heart and in the moment, rather than in a press conference after returning to the locker room alone.

Not only this, but Osaka barely talked about her own performance in winning the match, but instead chose to commend the 15 year old and her team saying, “I remember I used to see you guys training in the same place as us, and for me, the fact that both of us made it and we’re both still working as hard as we can, is incredible… I think you guys are amazing. Coco, I think you’re amazing.”

As a role model for other professional players, Osaka certainly deserves a place on our list. Gauff has since expressed gratitude for the gesture, revealing that she had initially felt too upset to do the interview, “but she encouraged me to do it. It was amazing.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house!

Handshakes – Sporting Heroes – Tennis Role Models – Naomi Osaka

Andy Murray

Until July 2012, not many would associate the phrase “emotional defeat” with famously straight-faced Andy Murray. Britain and its press (who had not always been kind to Murray), were finally convinced by the player when he lost out to Roger Federer in his first Wimbledon final.

Once again, there was a court full of emotion and everyone saw how much it meant to him. When asked about his on-court tears in the weeks after the defeat, Murray responded, “I’m getting closer. If I wasn’t emotional I guess I’m probably in the wrong sport.”

This openness has really led Murray to become one of the best role models in tennis. Following Wimbledon 2012, the player’s success has been accompanied by a more positive on-court outlook and a readiness to speak out in interviews.

Murray has been particularly vocal about his support for women in sport, particularly since 2014 when hiring a female coach gave him an insight into the way they’re often treated. Murray has since stated that although he was aware that working with Amélie Mauresmo would get people talking, he wasn’t prepared to see her up against unfair “criticism and prejudice”.

“The staggering thing was that she was slated every time I lost, which is something my former coaches never ever experienced. It wasn’t right.”

Murray consistently makes efforts to correct prejudices. When a reporter referred to him as “the first person ever to win two Olympic tennis gold medals” he was swift to make a correction and remind the journalist of a certain pair of very significant players…

His statement that “Venus and Serena have won about four each” had nothing to do with false modesty, and everything to do with respect and recognition. That’s exactly the kind of thoughtfulness and integrity which makes Murray a great role model for young tennis players.

Microphones – Sporting Heroes – Tennis Role Models – Andy Murray

Serena Williams

This brings us onto our final sporting hero of the week. No list of tennis role models would be complete without Serena Williams; a player whose determination, skill and strength has meant she’s rarely left the top-10 rankings throughout the last two decades.

As such a highly successful player, Williams has faced a disproportionate level of suspicion and criticism over the years. It’s almost as though people don’t believe in her, even after so much success! She is frequently subject to more drug tests than other players, has been told her presence at the other end of the net is “distracting”, and has experienced racist derision throughout her career.

Serena Williams has spoken out about discrimination throughout all this. Furthermore, she never allows the tennis world to diminish her achievements or indeed the immense effort she puts in. This commitment makes her an excellent role model for tennis players and indeed young people with all sorts of aspirations.

“Luck has nothing to do with it, because I have spent many, many hours, countless hours on the court, working for my one moment in time, not knowing when it would come.”

Williams also uses her platform to encourage girls to find, develop and not shy away from their strength, reminding us to “think of all the girls who could become top athletes but quit sports because they’re afraid of having too many defined muscles and being made fun of or called unattractive.”

Clocks – Sporting Heroes – Tennis Role Models – Serena Willliams

Tennis Role Models: Who’s Your Sporting Hero?

We hope you’re feeling inspired by our list of contemporary tennis role models. Be sure to keep an eye on the Stadia Sports blog for more advice and inspiration. And if you coach or support a young player, why not share some stories of the sport’s brightest stars?

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