How Coco Gauff embodies the biggest story in sports
By KURT STREETER
What perfect timing.
That thought flashed through my mind as I sat courtside at Arthur Ashe Stadium last week, watching Coco Gauff poleax the backhand passing shot that sealed the U.S. Open and her first grand slam title.
My thoughts were as much about the in-sync way Gauff struck that last ball as how the moment had lined up for this column.
Gauff — a sensation at 19, much as Venus and Serena Williams were at the same age — stepped closer to her destiny. With a major championship in hand, she is ready to be a leader on the women’s tennis tour and one of the guardians of the new era of female empowerment in sports.
Her beginning provided a perfect ending for me. The Open was the last event I will cover as the Sports of The Times columnist. I’m moving to our National desk, where I’ll write feature stories about America’s wonder, complexity, trouble and promise.
How perfect that the U.S. Open helped lower the curtain, with a women’s sport providing the tournament’s apex moment: Gauff’s three-set win over Aryna Sabalenka overshadowed an anticlimactic men’s final in which Novak Djokovic took his 24th major title with a straight-sets win over Daniil Medvedev. For me, women have been the story, and not just at the U.S. Open.
I took on this column in the late summer of 2020. The worst days of the pandemic can seem a hazy memory, stuck in the back of our collective consciousness, as painful moments often are. Much of the sports world was shuttered and scrambling to figure out ways to get back to competition amid the loss of so many lives. Who knew when the rampaging virus would be tamed?
At the same time, the ever-present inheritance of racism roiled the nation after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — both at the hands of police — and the brutal killing of a jogger, Ahmaud Arbery, by white racists.
Remember the athletes — famous professionals and little-known amateurs in the United States and globally — and how they spoke out and led.
And remember that Donald Trump was president then, spewing barbs at them, particularly at Black athletes who raised their voices or protested by having the temerity to kneel, exercising their right of peaceful protest during the playing of the national anthem.
I wrote about all this and much more, and I tried to do so in a way that showed I was not interested in the kind of shouting matches that pervade much of sports journalism. I aimed to write thoughtfully about how sports and athletes intersect with the social issues that stir and vex our culture. I sought to be a strong voice in this space, and to add to the mix a good pinch of storytelling and the occasional piece spiced with a little cheeky fun. More than anything, I sought to live out the most tried-and-true of journalistic credos: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable — or, in my parlance, fight for the outsiders and the outliers, the unseen and the overlooked.
Which brings me back to a subject I have considered often here, one embodied by Gauff hitting that backhand passing shot and walking off with a grand slam title and a winner’s check for $3 million: the rise of women in sports.
Think of all we have witnessed in this arena over the past three years.
Think of the WNBA, the league’s leading role in the protests of 2020, and its continued strength as an amalgamation of women who are not afraid to challenge the status quo.
Think of the winning fight by the U.S. women’s national soccer team for equal pay, or how female soccer players across the globe and in the NWSL stood up against harassing, abusive coaches.
Did you see that volleyball game at the University of Nebraska, with 92,000 fans in the stands? Or all those record-breaking, packed-to-the-gills stadiums at the Women’s World Cup, with 75,000 on hand for the recent final in Australia?
Yep, it’s a new era.
Consider March Madness 2023. This was a year when the men’s event sat in the shadow of the women’s side — with its upsets, tension and quality. With the charismatic Angel Reese leading LSU over Iowa for the national title. With Reese, bold and Black, sparking a conversation on race by taunting her white opponent, Caitlin Clark, the sharpshooting player of the year.
Yes, on the court, track, field or wherever they compete, women can be as challenging, ornery, competitive and controversial as men. That needs to be celebrated.
Where will this end? With a few exceptions, tennis being one, it’s hard to imagine women’s sports getting the kind of attention they deserve any time soon.
Who gets the most money, notice and hosannas in youth sports? By and large, boys.
Who runs most teams and controls most media that broadcast and write about the games? By and large, men.
Who runs the companies that provide the sponsorship money? Yeah, primarily men.
Change is coming. But change will take more time. Maybe a few generations more.
The decks remain stacked in favor of guys, but women continue their fight. When it comes to the games we play and love to watch, that’s the biggest story in sports right now.
How perfect that this year’s U.S. Open would frame that story once again. Flushing Meadows was a two-week gala celebration of the 50th anniversary of Billie Jean King’s successful push for equal prize money at the event — a landmark in sports that still stands out for its boldness.
And how fitting that on this golden anniversary — with Serena Williams now retired, with Billie Jean front and center during tributes all tournament long — Gauff would win her first grand slam and do it by flashing the kind of poise that marks her as an heir to the throne.
Thank you, Coco and Serena. Thank you, Billie Jean, and all the other female and male athletes who have gone against the status quo, emerged victorious and are still in the fight.
And thank you for following along as I’ve tried to stand for the outsiders and make sense of it all.