They say a picture is worth a thousand words; in Naomi Osaka’s case, it was worth over 70,000 likes on Twitter.
Osaka stumbled across the image a few days after winning the Australian Open. She’s grinning in the photo, salmon sweatband-clad arms stretched to the sky in victory, front foot raised as she takes a step. Upwards, onwards - an apt illustration for the trajectory of 2020’s highest-paid female athlete, who always seems like she’s just getting started.
But it was the other person in the photo, the ball girl, who caught the four-time Grand Slam winner’s attention. The young woman with the long brown hair is crouched just behind Osaka, her eyes firmly fixated on the athlete at whom she’s beaming in admiration. In fact, it’s hard to tell who is more thrilled in the moment: the 23-year-old woman who’s just potted £1.5 million, or the girl in green quite literally looking up to her hero.
Osaka captioned the photo: “Was looking at pics from AO and I just noticed the ball girl in this. Hi.”
It’s the kind of instantly iconic image that Julie Porter, chief operating officer of the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), wants to see replicated in the future.
But while tennis is bursting with top-tier women’s talent, Porter acknowledged the grassroots game in Britain is lagging behind.
She said: “As a traditional mixed sport, many would think [tennis] holds a privileged position over other sports, and indeed it’s well-known for driving equality… but that doesn’t mean there isn’t lots more to do.
“There’s lots of opportunity at the elite end of the sport, but this alone is not enough. Inequalities persist across grassroots, and we have many of the same challenges as other sports.
“At very young ages in tennis the sport is gender equal, age four [to] seven, but as little girls grow up, we lose many more than we do boys and men.
“I believe to drive change, it needs to be at the heart of everything that you do. I don’t believe this can be left to a department, or indeed just the women in the organisation. I think it’s got to start at the top. It’s got to be part of your vision, and it’s got to run through every department.”
Porter was was addressing the Women in Sport Digital Conference alongside five-time British Wimbledon veteran Jo Ward, who now oversees coach education for the LTA.
Both women hoped the organisation’s holistic efforts in recruiting and retaining more girls and women in the game, from players to board members, could set an example for other sports.
Earlier this month, the LTA announced the formation of the IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility) group, composed of almost 50 representatives from across the tennis community who will help to shape and implement the governing body’s forthcoming inclusion and diversity strategy.
In 2017, the LTA teamed up with Judy Murray to launch She Rallies, which works with community ambassadors to get more women and girls involved in tennis.
The programme has been a resounding success. One Essex mother was instrumental in doubling her club’s membership; at least half of the new recruits were women and girls.
But the LTA’s research also revealed that female players of all ages encounter unique challenges when they step on the court, from young girls battling stereotypes that ‘sport is for boys’ to working mums trying to fit training into jam-packed diaries.
It’s why Ward has insisted on developing a coaching curriculum that specifically addresses the needs of women and girls in the game.
She said: “[We’re] trying to open male and female coaches’ eyes to the fact that what they have at the moment is half a toolbox and we need to fill the other half to make sure they’ve got the full set of equipment when they’re coaching, so that they understand that it is completely different.
“I’ve had men coming up to me saying, ‘I’ve got daughters, I didn’t realise the amount of stereotypes that girls deal with’, or, ‘I coach female players and whoa, I didn’t know it was this hard for them’.”
The LTA is piloting a flexible, graded qualification system for coaching candidates that allows them to complete much of the work from home at their own pace. Early results were promising: women have “ever so slightly” out-performed men.
Ward ultimately hopes the new system will help women gain “confidence and credibility” and leave a perpetuating legacy on the sport.
She said: “If we can make sure we equip coaches with that female-specific coaching, then they will have a much better job of attracting and retaining more female players and helping them transition into performance if that’s what they want to do.
“But it will also have the knock-on effect into our workforce.
“[We need to] coach female players better, but remember that this generation’s players are the next generation’s coaches, so if we can do a better job of attracting more female players, retaining more female players and driving higher standards potentially into performance, we’re going to get more female coaches out of it.”
In other words, the LTA is keeping women firmly in the picture.