Athletes have long been held as role models, especially among the young. Sadly though, they haven’t always been the best role models. The world of professional tennis has seen its share of anti-heroes, players who hurl verbal abuse as well as racquets, balls, water bottles or chairs whenever a match doesn’t go their way.

Of course, examples of good sportsmanship on the court far outnumber the bad. But more often than not, it’s the outrageous behaviour that draws attention, even from people who don’t otherwise follow the sport.

How refreshing, then, to witness moments of outrageously good behaviour – spontaneous acts of kindness and compassion that go well beyond what one might expect at a tennis tournament. Even better, many of these acts are courtesy of the tour’s youngest female players, leading the way for the older women and the men, as well as for the kids who’ll follow in their footsteps.

Moments like these transcend the game, offering a happy contrast to stories of athletes behaving badly. More than that, they remind us that God’s common grace is at work in every niche of human culture, even in the world of pro tennis.

Bianca Andreescu and Serena Williams, Rogers Cup

Canadian teenager Bianca Andreescu was the biggest story of the 2019 tennis season. The 19-year-old daughter of Romanian immigrants, Andreescu seemed to come out of nowhere and shot up the rankings at a dizzying pace. In the finals of the Rogers Cup, held in Toronto minutes from her family home, she faced her most daunting challenge to that point in the form of Serena Williams, arguably the greatest female tennis player of all time.

The match itself was anticlimactic. Less than 20 minutes in, Williams was forced to retire due to a back injury, making Andreescu the winner. But the teen didn’t celebrate her muted victory just yet. Instead, seeing her opponent break down emotionally, she rushed over to where Williams was sitting, knelt in front of her, asked how she was doing and hugged her. The two women shared a few warm moments commiserating about their injuries amid smiles and tears, before embracing once again.

The crowd as well as the commentators were astounded, never having seen quite such an exchange after a match. Williams, equally astonished, praised her young opponent for showing kindness and maturity beyond her years. Asked what had prompted her action, Andreescu simply said she wanted to be a good sport and show compassion, having already suffered more than her share of injuries in her brief career.

Rafael Nadal and a young fan, US Open

One of the top players in the men’s game, Spain’s Rafael Nadal is known as much for his humble and gracious demeanour as for his fierce, competitive playing style. Indeed, although he won the 2019 US Open, adding it to his impressive tally of major victories, one of his finest moments of the tournament happened off the court, before his third-round match en route to the title.

Nadal had come out before the match to sign autographs, as players often do, and was met by an enthusiastic bevy of teenagers, holding giant tennis balls and other memorabilia for him to sign. Among the crowd was a very small boy, getting swamped by the press of larger bodies around him. As might be expected, the boy was overwhelmed by the experience and began to cry uncontrollably.

Seeing the child’s distress, Nadal lifted him to safety over the fence and spent several long moments speaking to him gently to help calm him down, all the while stroking his face and wiping away his tears. Tournament staff were on hand and order was soon restored, but the moment went viral, with commentators noting that Nadal wasn’t just a great champion but also a model of class and kindness for the sport.

Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff, US Open

One of the most anticipated matches of that same US Open was between Japan’s Naomi Osaka, the defending champion, and American newcomer Coco Gauff. At 21, Osaka had already won two major titles, become the top-ranked player in the world and gained a huge international following, especially among younger tennis fans. Gauff, at just 15 years of age, was the breakout prodigy of the summer season, having won the hearts and hopes of the large New York crowd at the Open.

The match turned out to be rather one-sided, with the experienced Osaka defeating Gauff in straight sets and putting an end to her Cinderella run. Right after the match, however, Osaka invited the dejected teen to join her for the on-court interview, an honour usually reserved for the winner. At first Gauff refused, fearing she would break down and cry during the interview, but Osaka gently persuaded her and she finally agreed.

The gesture amazed and delighted the pro-Gauff crowd as well as the TV commentators. Even Mary Joe Fernandez, the on-court interviewer, was taken aback but decided to roll with it, consoling Gauff and urging her to dry her tears amid loud applause from thousands of New Yorkers. Gauff continued to sob as she thanked the fans and especially Osaka for her kindness and encouragement.

Before answering any questions, the shy and soft-spoken Osaka embraced Gauff and turned to address the young teen’s parents, thanking them for raising such a great player and then bursting into tears herself. Osaka was aware that the crowd had favoured her opponent, and wanted Gauff to enjoy that moment of appreciation from her fans. It was a classy display of respect, compassion and mutual support, shared by two of the youngest players at the tournament.

Bianca and Serena, the rematch, US Open

Perhaps the most fitting coda to this summer of kindness on the tennis courts also came at the US Open, in the women’s final, a rematch between Bianca Andreescu and Serena Williams. This time, however, the contest was on Williams’ home turf, with 25,000 fans cheering her every move, at times so loudly that Andreescu had to plug her ears between points. Even so, the young Canadian emerged the victor after two hard-fought sets, winning her first major title and turning an entire country into tennis fans, at least for the moment.

The goodwill between the two women that had begun in Toronto continued in New York. Williams was gracious in defeat, praising Andreescu not only as a player but as an exemplary person, in fact one of her favourites on the tennis tour. Andreescu for her part was warm and genuine in her praise for Williams, her childhood idol. And in true Canadian fashion, she apologized with a smile to the New York crowd for having beaten their champion.

Welcome reminders of common grace

For better or worse, sports stars will always be seen as idols and role models, especially by the young. Not all athletes consider this a primary concern, but it comes with the territory. Indeed, in too many cases, one might wish that it didn’t. Every year it seems, the sports world is beset with new stories of domestic violence, sexual assault, substance abuse, or just plain mean, egotistical behaviour, all of which reminds us that we live in a fallen world.

But then we witness stories like these, from the summer tennis season of 2019, and they’re surely not the only ones. There are still women and men in pro sports – sometimes the youngest among them – who take their responsibility as role models seriously. They show compassion and kindness, not as calculated gestures to enhance their brand, but as spontaneous acts that flow from their character. And they inspire young people who look up to them not only to be better athletes, but also better people.

Such stories are welcome reminders of God’s common grace, the fact that he still rules this world and is at work redeeming it. He has revealed himself via his Word – and ultimately through his Son – as kind, compassionate, gentle and tender-hearted. In turn, he calls everyone, believers and nonbelievers alike, to reflect these traits as his representatives, made in his image. Wherever we see flashes of that happening – even in the world of pro tennis – it’s good to celebrate those stories.

© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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