I’m what you might call a vicarious athlete. I like to think that description sounds slightly better than “armchair athlete,” but it’s basically the same thing. While I try to stay fit and healthy, I’m not skilled in any particular sport so I compete vicariously through the prowess of others. In other words, I love watching sports, and tennis is one of my favorites. So imagine my excitement when my daughter offered to take me to the Rogers Cup finals this past August. (For those of you who know what happened during the match, don’t worry – her tickets were complimentary. Thankfully, we only paid for parking.)
For those of you not familiar with the match, it was the hugely anticipated Rogers Cup women’s final that would see young Canadian, Bianca Andreescu face the legendary goddess of tennis, Serena Williams. It was the first time the two would meet on court, and the atmosphere inside the Aviva Centre was electrifying. Across Canada, close to 600,000 viewers tuned in to watch the showdown.
When Andreescu walked on court, the crowd went wild, waving thousands of small, paper Canadian flags – a testament to our national pride and enthusiasm for this 19-year-old tennis hopeful. Then came Williams, and the crowd erupted with equal gusto, cheering loudly for this incredible legend and role model who, for years, has shown girls and young women the beauty of her power. As a spectator, it felt sure to be a win-win game, no matter the outcome.
Did I mention we had great seats? Eight rows up, just off of centre court. I could see the sweat trickling down the forehead of each player, we were sitting that close. It was a magical and memorable game. All 17 minutes of it. Yes, that’s right. My match of a lifetime lasted just 17 minutes before Williams retired due to injury.
Immediately after being told she had won the match, with the crowd sitting in stunned silence, Andreescu stood up and walked over to Williams. What ensued was an authentic and touching display of grace and compassion – an intimate moment between winner and loser that showed competition at its best. The maturity and empathy demonstrated by Andreescu in quietly commiserating with Williams, and the ability of Williams to accept Andreescu’s gesture say a lot about each woman’s character. This spontaneous and moving moment turned a potentially disappointing afternoon into a lasting memory that my daughter and I will long remember.
Tennis offered up another special moment for me this summer when I watched the televised match of number one ranked player, Naomi Osaka taking on 15-year-old Coco Gauff at the U.S. Open. It wasn’t the game that was memorable, but what happened afterwards that left its impression. Following a decisive victory over her young opponent, Osaka invited the visibly disappointed Gauff to join her on court for the post-game interview, and encouraged her to say a few words to the crowd. It was a display of grace and kindness – an example of humility made all the more powerful given Osaka’s ranking as the number one female player in the world. She didn’t have to do this. But she did. And in that moment, young girls saw what it looks like when powerful women lift up those around them.
Having watched both events, I feel optimistic about this next generation of young athletes. These female stars and rising hopefuls model an approach to competition that feels particularly healthy. They are fierce in competition, and their victories are hard fought, accompanied by sweat, tears and oftentimes pain. Each win deserves to be celebrated – there’s no denying that. But these young women also model that winning doesn’t preclude kindness, grace or compassion. They remind us that if losing provides a chance to learn from our mistakes, winning provides a chance to demonstrate our true character.
Thinking about both matches, here’s what I think we should help our daughters remember:
1. Fight to the end.
2. Be gracious in victory.
3. Be gracious in defeat.
4. Lift each other up.
5. Win or lose, it’s okay to cry.
It goes without saying that these five lessons apply to so much more than tennis. They apply to school and to work. They apply equally to boys and girls, men and women. They are lessons to be modelled by parents and teachers, by politicians and public leaders. And I’m going to argue that if they can be modelled under pressure by Andreescu, Williams, Osaka and Gauff, then the rest of us have no excuse for not trying to uphold these lessons. So while I may be vicarious in my display of athletic ability, I will try to model the perseverance, resilience, grace and openness of these incredible young women.
Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to watch the U.S. Open. Andreescu’s up to serve!