Playing Like A Girl…

With her arms flailing and feet knocking cans off the low shelves, she threw herself on the floor. She was screaming loudly in the midst of the most outrageous tantrum I’d ever witnessed. She was a spectacular spectacle. Her antics slowed cart traffic and nearly time as a stillness washed over the supermarket. She was a mother’s worst nightmare. The other patrons, likely parents themselves, eventually cast their eyes down or away as if seeing the child’s meltdown somehow indicted them. They pushed their carts past the horrifying if not humorous scene rubbernecking to catch one last judgmental glimpse of the child and mother thinking, “thank god that’s not my child.” I inched closer eyeing mother and child as I feverishly checked-off items off my long list.

No more than five, she was a ball of color and sound. Her box braids were embellished with pink, green and yellow barrets to compliment her rainbow burst tennis outfit. Her well-developed lungs exploded from her rotund body reaching ear-piercing octaves. Her tear-stained face was not that of a timid child. Whether it was time for a nap, less candy or simply a time-out, she was beyond spending time shopping. And she clearly and loudly voiced this. She was not the kind of child who could go from tantrum to smiles quickly like a rollercoaster.

Shopping along the same aisle, I overheard her mother calmly scolding her. “You will not go to your next tennis lesson if you continue this nonsense.” Mouth agape ready to voice her discontent or excuse, her mother turned to face her with a steely no-nonsense demeanor. She continued, “and if you say or do one more thing, you won’t get to see Serena.” Recognizing she had lost her battle, she muffled her pleas. Quietly trailing her mother down the aisle her whimpering slowed. When I bumped into them at the register, she was in a mute-like trance. No request for candy or the inevitable toy stationed at the cashier’s counter. Walking out to the car I marveled at how tennis had grabbed her attention so completely.

The little girl reminded me of myself. I wished for her a world of people who would encourage her love for tennis even if her body looks different from the others on her practice court.  Her black body is more plump than her peers and for this her life trajectory does not have to be different. I wish for her a world in which she could be a child for as long as her peers.

No doubt, she and I share a gravitational pull to the sport and an athlete that resembles us. This athlete, tennis phenom, deliverer of viral splits and perfectly placed serves has been part of the American consciousness since she and her sister cripped-walked onto the tennis tour twenty years ago. In Serena we see a woman in a body that is familiar, a story that is familiar, a voice that is familiar. Her success, joy and freedom has been an inspiration, like Althea Gibson breaking tennis’ color line in 1950.

This little girl will play tennis because of Serena and Venus just like Madison Keys, Sachia Vikery, Sloane Stephens… Playing like a girl is no slight, diss or affront. Serena has proven this time and again. In the US Open Final today her opponent is a young woman she also inspired. Playing like a girl is OK, just ask Naomi Osaka.

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