On Saturday, September 11th, 18-year-old tennis star Emma Raducanu won the US Open, making history as the first qualifier to win a major in the Open Era and the first female British player to win a Grand Slam event in 44 years. Witnessing the championship take place in New York on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 already felt like history in the making, but Raducanu’s win took the occasion to an entirely new level. While watching the event from afar, there were many things I noticed about the young champion, from her steely focus and discipline on the court to her warm, disarming smile during moments of victory. But what struck me more than anything else — even beyond her sportsmanship — was the way she reminded me of home.
As a mixed woman of Chinese-Jamaican and Puerto Rican descent, I intimately understand what it’s like to exist between cultures. Like Raducanu, who was born in Canada to Chinese and Romanian parents and moved to the United Kingdom at age two, I also grew up in a mixed household with parents from different backgrounds. Throughout my life, I’ve become accustomed to questions like “Where are you from?” and “What are you?” from curious, often well-meaning people who typically see my dark hair and blue eyes and aren’t exactly sure how to ask “the question.” Despite the imposter syndrome that comes with living between cultures, I’ve worked hard to embrace and celebrate my blended background — even while attending college in the predominantly white south, where I rarely saw young women who reflected my story.
When I curled up on the couch Saturday afternoon and tuned into the US Open final, I saw not only one, but two incredible, mixed women competing for tennis’ biggest honor. Across the court from Raducanu was Leylah Annie Fernandez, a phenomenal 19-year-old Canadian player who also happens to be of mixed descent; her father is Ecuadorian, and her mother is Filipina. As the camera panned across the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium, I couldn’t help but notice how much the enthusiastic Fernandez family reminded me of my own — supportive, unapologetic, proud, and mixed. And despite the obvious competition between Fernandez and Raducanu that day, I found myself rooting for them both. Regardless of who would claim the title, these young women of color embodying grit and grace were already champions in my book.
Over the years, I’ve grappled with my identity as a Chinese-Jamaican, Puerto Rican woman. I’ve often wondered: Am I Puerto Rican enough? Jamaican enough? Chinese enough? And while I know the answer is yes, I also know that embracing your identity when you’re mixed in America is an ongoing personal journey that truly never ends. If she hasn’t already, I imagine Raducanu will embark on a similar journey of self-discovery as she establishes her place in professional sports — and the world — as a Toronto-born, UK-raised, Chinese, Romanian woman. The same goes for Fernandez, who is trilingual and is already beginning to express pride in her mixed heritage. While I’m just a bit older than these 18 and 19-year-old tennis legends, I look up to them; they remind me that our future is in beautiful (and talented) hands.
I don’t know what it is about Gen Z women of color in sports these days, but seeing athletes like Emma, Leylah, Naomi, Simone, Suni — and the list goes on — gives me tremendous hope. They are taking up space in a world that consistently tells young women of color that they are not enough, and they’re doing it with passion and poise. And while there is more to these women than just their heritage, their presence on the world’s biggest stages serves as an example for all young people who dare to take up space and demand that the world pay attention.
While watching two talented teens compete against eachother in the US Open final, I couldn’t help but remember my teenage self — young, hopeful, newly arrived at college, and just starting to reflect on my mixed identity and background. Witnessing Raducanu and Fernandez compete on Saturday was surreal and comforting; because there’s something about seeing young women of color succeed that reminds you that your younger, bright-eyed self was well on her way, all along.
As for Raducanu, she has already made her mark as an athlete to watch following her Cinderella story win. Continuing the royal theme, she stunned at the Met Gala alongside some of Hollywood and sports’ brightest, and some are even predicting that she’ll become one of the most marketable athletes in the world. Raducanu is beautiful and talented, no doubt, but may we not forget there is so much more to this athlete than meets the eye. In fact, tennis isn’t even mentioned in her Instagram bio; instead, she simply lists her heritage. May it be a reminder to young women of color that you will never be limited to just one thing.