Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka: When Our Heroes Fail Us

Screenshot taken from ESPN video

It was meant to be a historic match, but ended up being remembered for all the wrong reasons.

20-year-old Naomi Osaka was looking forward to a “tough, competitive match” when she walked into the women’s final of the US Open Tennis Championship on September 8. She would be playing her childhood idol, Serena Williams, a legend in the women’s tennis scene who started playing pro tennis even before Naomi was born, and had won more Grand Slam singles than any other active player. Naomi grew up admiring Serena and her achievements; she even did a school report on her hero when she was in third grade.

So Sunday was a big day for Naomi.

The match was off to a good start. Naomi played well against Serena and managed to win the first set. But as the game progressed, Serena was given three code violations at various times by the umpire. She was progressively frustrated at the umpire’s calls and disputed them hotly. At one point, Serena appealed to tournament officials, and held an angry conversation that lasted close to three minutes. She even smashed her racquet in an angry outburst. The audience was riled up, but Naomi waited patiently for the duration and held her calm as they both returned to the game.

Naomi won the match, her first Grand Slam title. But as she and Serena stood on the podium, listening to boos from the angry audience, she pulled down her visor and cried. She even apologized for how the match ended. While Serena gave her a hug and a few comforting words, this was not how the young athlete’s first Grand Slam should have gone. Regardless of whether the umpire had made unfair calls, Serena’s poor response during the match had left an ugly mark on what should have been Naomi’s finest moment as a young tennis pro.

Perhaps many of us have experienced our heroes letting us down. It seems inevitable, doesn’t it? Favorite celebrities get embroiled in scandals. Elders at church make unbiblical, hurtful decisions. Parents, even, blurt out hurtful things in the heat of the moment.

We expect the best of our heroes. Yet, they never fully live up to the expectations we have for them. Even Naomi Osaka, who conducted herself impeccably during and after this tumultuous match (saying that she will always remember Serena in a good way) will perhaps disappoint one day. Who can we look to? Is there no one that can bare the weight of our expectations?

The author of Hebrews describes Jesus Christ as “one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26). Jesus doesn’t say hurtful words that He would regret. He doesn’t betray us by bad decisions. He doesn’t lose His temper on a tennis court.

Though fully God, Jesus chose to become a mere human being, humbling Himself by taking on all our limitations, and yet remaining obedient even to death on the cross (Philippians 2:6-10). Though He was tried, He did not sin once in His entire life here on earth, unlike us who sin daily. He is the hero who could never fail us.

“For this reason,” continues the author of Hebrews, “Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant” (Hebrews 9:15).

Not only is Jesus perfect—a hero who could never disappoint—but His perfection, coupled with His sacrifice, offers us a promise of perfection as well. His death on the cross sets us free from our sins. We’ve all had bad moments: emotional outbursts, taking unfair advantage of others, lies both big and small. . . Because of Christ, these no longer need to count against us. Because of Him, sin can no longer separate us from God.

Not only that, but when we put our hope in Jesus, we also put our hope in the fact that He will work in our lives and one day perfect us, so that we may receive the “promised eternal inheritance.” This “perfecting” takes a lifetime. We won’t simply stop having emotional outbursts or hurting people around us entirely. But when we turn to Christ, the process has begun. He is already working in our lives, and by His grace, each day we walk further away from our myriad sins.

Looking up to people around us is not wrong; there is so much we can learn from them. Serena Williams, for instance, still has incredible skill and experience at tennis. Teachers, parents, favorite writers, though all similarly marred by sin, still have much to offer us if we are willing to learn.

But we should not be surprised when the very people we look up to ultimately show themselves to be sinful human beings, just like us. At the end of the day, our hope does not rest in these people. Our hope rests in the perfect Christ Jesus who has conquered even death.

Knowing this, “let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” (Hebrews 12:2).

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