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 now 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 straight 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 now, 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 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 last three years.
Think of the W.N.B.A., 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 N.W.S.L. 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 L.S.U. 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 event 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.
Interview: Patrick Stewart
“I acted Macbeth for exactly 365 days,” says the actor, whose new memoir is “Making It So.” “The role got into me so deeply it dominated my life at the time and caused me to drink too much alcohol after the performance was over. No other role I have played has affected me so profoundly.”
Can You Connect These Memorable Characters With Their Novels?
Welcome to Lit Trivia, the Book Review’s multiple-choice quiz designed to test your knowledge of books and their authors. This week’s installment asks you to identify memorable characters from mid-20th-century novels. After the last question, you’ll find a list of books highlighted in the quiz.
The Book Review Quiz Bowl appears on the Books page every week with a new topic. Click here for the archive of past quizzes.
Modern Masculinity Is Broken. She Knows How to Fix It.
With the arrival of her part memoir, part manifesto “How to Be a Woman” in 2011, Caitlin Moran established herself as one of her generation’s funniest and most fearless feminist voices. Moran, who is 48 and who first made her mark in the early 1990s as a wunderkind music journalist for British publications, has published four ribald and emotionally honest books of nonfiction and two novels since then and has continued to work as a columnist at The Times of London. Now, with her new book, “What About Men?” Moran turns her eye to what she sees as the limited and limiting discussions around modern masculinity. It’s a book she felt duty-bound to write. “All the women that I know on similar platforms,” Moran says, speaking about fellow writers, “we’re out there mentoring young girls and signing petitions and looking after the younglings. The men of my generation with the same platforms have not done that. They are not having a conversation about young men. So given that none of them have written a book that addresses this, muggins here is going to do it.”
There’s a lot of generalizing in your book when it comes to men: They’re obsessed with band T-shirts and emotionally inarticulate and constantly talking about their balls. Is it possible that relying so heavily on those kinds of jokey stereotypes and clichés risks undercutting the deeper points you’re trying to make about the need to open up possibilities for how we think and talk about masculinity? I’m a mainstream writer. If I’m going to start talking about a difficult idea, I want to approach it in the most successful way possible. You need to start with a generalization that is going to get people to go either, “Yes, I recognize myself in that,” or, “No, I don’t agree.” Maybe a lot of people are going, “Men are emotionally literate, they can talk to each other,” but I sat down to watch “The Bear,” which has been lauded everywhere, and it’s about men who can’t talk about their emotions. I see that as a far more clichéd depiction than anything that I’ve done in this book.
Part of the framing of your book is that there’s not enough discussion about young men’s struggling to adapt to changing ideas about masculinity. I feel as if that’s a big topic of conversation these days. So what is the fresh thinking that you’re bringing to it? Feminism has a stated objective, which is the political, social, sexual and economic equality of women. With men, there isn’t an objective or an aim. Because there isn’t, what I have observed is that the stuff that is getting the most currency is on the conservative side. Men going: “Our lives have gotten materially worse since women started asking for equality. We need to reset the clock. We need to have power over women again.” We are talking about the problems of women and girls at a much higher level than we are about boys and men. We need to identify the problems and work out what we want the future to look like for men in a way that women have already done for themselves.
You used to write a lot of celebrity profiles. Can you tell me a good anecdote about a famous person that you’ve never told before? The New York Times would never publish it. Absolutely filthy.
Try me. [Moran tells an epically filthy story about a British one-hit wonder from the 1990s.] You’re not printing that, are you?
How do you think the public discussion of feminism has changed since “How to Be a Woman”? I think the younger generation of feminists are even more open-minded and openhearted and sincere in what they do. But the downside is that a lot of the humor and the lightheartedness and the ability to ask a question about an idea has gone. The thing that I observe in younger women and activists is that they’re scared of going online and using the wrong word or asking the wrong question. As a result, we’re not having the free flow of ideas and questions that makes a movement optimal. We appear to have reinvented religion to a certain extent: the idea that there is a sentient thing watching you and that if you do something wrong, it will punish you. God is very much there in social media. I feel that having been born in an era before social media, I grew up godless, and it made me a lot freer than my daughters’ generation.
What’s an idea that people are afraid to talk about more openly? Trans issues. In the U.K., you are seen to be on one of two sides. It’s the idea that you could be a centrist and talk about it in a relaxed, humorous, humane way that didn’t involve two groups of adults tearing each other to pieces on the internet.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.
David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and the columnist for Talk. He recently interviewed Alok Vaid-Menon about transgender ordinariness, Joyce Carol Oates about immortality and Robert Downey Jr. about life after Marvel.
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