Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff idolize Serena, Venus Williams beyond tennis

SAN JOSE – Serena Williams was no longer in the Bay Area for the 2018 annual women’s tennis tournament.

And given that she won in just one set in a first-round loss that year, the sport’s greatest player hasn’t been a Bay Area player since she won it in 2014. But even if she didn’t is physically here in San Jose this week, her impact looms over the event.

Two of the sport’s biggest superstars will go head-to-head on Thursday night as Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff are set to battle it out in a second-round match at the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic.

And both Osaka and Gauff credited Williams — and by extension, her older sister Venus — for influencing them growing up.

“When I was younger, the family event would be watching Serena and Venus,” Osaka said on Tuesday. “So when I was looking at that, that pushed me a lot. I never got to see them play live, in a match, but I got to watch their training. Seeing that, seeing people who look like me, it’s definitely inspiring.”

The Williams sisters started playing competitive tennis at the highest level before Osaka, 24, or Gauff, 18, were born. For the two facing off Thursday in front of what is expected to be a sold-out crowd, they have only known a world where at least two players who look like them shine in the sport.

And now, before Osaka and Gauff take the court together for the fourth time, both agreed that another match between two prominent black players would reinforce a strong message to young black women interested in tennis.

“For me, it would mean a lot if I was a kid,” Osaka said.

Gauff agreed: “If I could put myself in that shoes, it would mean a lot to me.”

The legacy of black tennis players began with Althea Gibson, who won five Grand Slam titles in the 1950s, and Arthur Ashe, a three-time Grand Slam winner in the 1960s and 1970s. They laid the foundations from which launched the Williams sisters – though not without plenty of bickering and abuse along the way.

Serena and Venus have been outspoken about issues in sports and beyond, standing up for what they believe is right. They boycotted the annual tournament at Indian Wells for years because of an incident in 2001 in which some fans directed racial slurs at Venus and her father, Richard.

Serena has also become a prominent voice on the tennis circuit advocating for positive change, fighting against issues such as pay inequality, sexism and racism on tour. In this way, the younger generation also followed suit. Osaka has been open about the mental health issues she has struggled with, including bouts of depression that have sometimes forced her to take time away from the game.

While Gauff, six years younger than Osaka, has yet to lead change on this scale, she sees social action as part of her career goals.

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