As I savor the recent success of rising young tennis phenoms Frances Tiafoe and Naomi Osaka, my thoughts keep shifting to the blockbuster movie “Black Panther.”
The Marvel production about a black superhero has enjoyed unprecedented crossover appeal, packing movie theaters from California to Calcutta and grossing more than a billion dollars at the box office worldwide.
But perhaps more importantly, it has been an inspiration for African Americans young and old to see a major movie of this genre with a director and entire cast of actors who look like them.
Upon hearing black kids talk about what the movie has meant to them, I am reminded of the dearth of black players in the upper echelons of professional tennis. Despite the impact Serena and Venus Williams have had on the sport, tennis remains largely the province of white folks.
That’s why I am excited about Tiafoe and Osaka. I believe they could become the Black Panthers of tennis. In addition to super talent, they have the charisma to attract young tennis fans all over the world.Embed from Getty Images
But in recent weeks these two 20-year-olds have rewritten the narrative. The word now is their future perhaps has arrived.
Both Tiafoe and Osaka notched their first Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) world tour titles respectively during this period, knocking off some high-caliber players along the way. Tiafoe won the Delray Beach Open in Florida on Feb. 25, and Osaka was victorious at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., on March 18.
While I was thrilled watching them win their first championship, what I found exceptionally impressive was the way in which they did it. They displayed a blend of power, precision and poise that is uncommon among players at their level of experience and should put their contemporaries on high alert.
The word that comes up most often among commentators describing the difference in Tiafoe’s and Osaka’s game now compared to just six months ago is “maturity.”Embed from Getty Images
When I first wrote about Osaka two years ago, she was an untamed talent with explosive raw power. My most recent post about Tiafoe came last fall and focused on his need to manage the moment in close, big matches.
Osaka’s title win was the more remarkable because it was a WTA Premier Mandatory tournament, deemed the fifth Grand Slam after the Australian, French and US Opens and Wimbledon, and her first title at any level since turning pro. Tiafoe, on the other hand, had racked up four titles on the ATP Challenger circuit, as well as several prestigious junior’s championships.
As I watched Osaka plow through the field at Indian Wells, first taking out seven-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova, I was amazed by how much her game has improved. She constructed points well, and it was clear she had refined her game. And when things got tight, she did not flinch.
Osaka knocked out former world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova in the quarterfinals, then defeated current world No. 1 Simona Halep in the semi-finals. Both were straight-set victories, including a 6-0 set against Halep.
A couple of days after taking the trophy and a $1.3 million paycheck – it doubled her career earnings – Osaka beat her idol Serena Williams in straight sets at the Miami Open, also a WTA Premier tournament. But her streak ended in the third round where she lost to Elina Svitolina.
Tiafoe also defeated an idol on his way to the Delray Beach title. He took out 10th-ranked Juan Martin del Potro, a former US Open champion, in the second round. Tiafoe also beat 2017 ATP Next/Gen champion Hyeon Chung in the quarter-finals and prevailed over Canadian Next/Gen sensation Denis Shapovalov in straight sets in the semi-finals.
At Indian Wells, Tiafoe suffered a setback that may have been caused by fatigue. He lost in straight sets in the first round to fellow young American Ernesto Escobedo, who was hitting the fuzz off the balls. Tiafoe got back on track in Miami where he defeated No. 26 Kyle Edmund and No. 13 Tomas Berdych before losing in the fourth round to Kevin Anderson.
Osaka began the year ranked No. 68. After the Miami Open, she had moved up to No. 21. Tiafoe advanced to No. 58 after his Miami Open run. He began the year at No. 79. He already has won more matches this year than he had in his first two seasons as a pro.
Both seem destined for the Top 10.
It still may be too early to proclaim Tiafoe and Osaka as the next superheroes of tennis. It also may be an unfair burden to place on these two young stars. Osaka seems extremely shy and may be reluctant to accept the role.
Tiafoe, on the other hand, seems eager to embrace the challenge. During an interview with Sports Illustrated.com, he talked about wanting to be an inspiration to young blacks.
“Obviously, a lot of young black people are playing football or basketball,” he said. “I would love for them to play tennis. That’s one of my biggest motivations – to get more black people playing tennis.”