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How Naomi Osaka, Megan Rapinoe and Sabrina Ionescu inspire the next generation

Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka (TPN/Getty Images)

Women’s athletes are often considered trailblazers for a reason, redefining their teams, leagues, games and cultures as they shift the boundaries of sport.

For every wunderkind, there is an athlete who inspired their greatness or transformed their notion of what is possible. The ’99ers galvanized a generation of American women’s soccer players, Billie Jean King changed the face of women’s tennis and Lisa Leslie motivated aspiring ballers.

Just as those iconic teams and athletes set an example for those who came after them, competitors today are making an imprint on the next generation in women’s sports.

As part of Nike’s 50th anniversary, the company is celebrating the last 50 years of women in sport and looking ahead to the next 50. From making an investment in the WNBA to creating the Nike Athlete Think Tank, Nike has been committed to amplifying and supporting women’s sports. In honor of their historic anniversary, Nike is shining a light on athletes who are inspiring the next generation and shifting the landscape of women’s sports.

Tennis star Naomi Osaka, U.S. national soccer team icon Megan Rapinoe and basketball phenom Sabrina Ionescu have all pushed the limits of their sports while changing the culture that surrounds the women’s game.

Perhaps no professional athlete has done that more in recent history than Osaka. With her candor and resilience, she has not only instigated a conversation around mental health but also challenged what is expected of elite tennis players on the court.

Osaka burst onto the scene at just 20 years old in her own pass-the-baton moment, defeating Serena Williams in straight sets to win her first Grand Slam title at the 2018 U.S. Open. The final, which was filled with controversy as Williams and the chair umpire clashed, served as something of a changing of the guard.

Tears filled Osaka’s eyes during the trophy presentation as boos from the crowd rang out. With Osaka’s win, the fans were denied the opportunity to witness Williams tie Margaret Court’s Grand Slam singles title record. To make matters more complicated, Williams had been Osaka’s idol since she was a child.

From there, Osaka took the tennis world by storm, inspiring a group of young players herself. A year after catapulting to fame at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Osaka was featured in another matchup billed as an established star taking on an up-and-coming prodigy in 15-year-old Coco Gauff.

Osaka came out on top, halting Gauff’s first U.S. Open singles run in dominant fashion. Gauff, overwhelmed by the weight of the moment, appeared emotional as tears fell from her eyes after the match. Having been on the other side of this very scenario, Osaka comforted the teen.

“After the match, I think she proved she’s a true athlete. For me, the definition of an athlete is someone who on the court treats you like their worst enemy, but after they treat you like you’re their best friend. And I think that’s what she did today,” Gauff said of Osaka in 2019.

Since those runs at the U.S. Open, Osaka has continued to redefine the sport, taking a step back from the court in 2021 to focus on her mental health while being vocal about the impact of post-match press conferences on her well-being. As Osaka returns to the tour on a more consistent basis, her peers have applauded her bravery and revered her as a leader.

Iga Świątek, who at 20 years old has ascended to the top of the WTA rankings, defeated Osaka in the Miami Open final in April and praised her afterward.

“When I watched you win the U.S. Open (in 2018), I wouldn’t have even thought I’d be playing versus you. You’re an inspiration. This sport is better with you,” Świątek said.

Osaka’s candor surrounding the expectations of fame and pressure to perform has resonated with athletes outside of tennis as well. Nelly Korda, a 23-year-old golf sensation, told Sportskeeda in 2021 that she looked up to Osaka when checking in on her own mental health.

“You also learn from, like, other people, I mean like Naomi Osaka,” Korda said. “You don’t even know what is gonna happen with the girl that just won the U.S. Open. She has all this fame, and you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you know, a prime example is Osaka. Has she just shot up into stardom, and it’s super hard for her.”

Rising above the criticisms and challenges of her sports celebrity, Osaka has helped to destigmatize mental health by bringing attention to it in sports and beyond. An established talent on the court and cultural icon off of it, Osaka is the definition of a generational figure.

Twelve years Osaka’s senior, Megan Rapinoe has similarly altered the blueprint for athlete activism, fighting for gender and racial equality while earning the distinction as the best footballer in the world.

The California native and two-time World Cup winner has scored 62 goals in her 187 appearances with the USWNT. Leading the team in goals at the 2019 World Cup, Rapinoe has made her mark on the pitch and spearheaded the the players’ fight for equal pay off of it.

Playing for the NWSL’s Seattle franchise since 2013, Rapinoe has been a consistent leader for club and country. Bethany Balcer, one of OL Reign’s most explosive strikers, credits Rapinoe with helping her adapt to professional soccer.

“I think Megan Rapinoe has been one of those players. I definitely look to the forward line a lot,” Balcer told Goal. “And so just making sure I am understanding what the game plan is when I was to go into the games. Whether I am playing the nine or the winger, just learning from them, taking their advice.”

Rapinoe’s outspokenness and authenticity have placed her at the center of the intersection between sports and politics, a role she has embraced. Advocating for LGBTQIA+ rights and racial equality, while pushing the U.S. Soccer Federation for equal pay, Rapinoe has won herself a legion of young fans and empowered players who’ve come after her.

“In so many ways, you’re the go-to person for current topics and politics issues,” teammate Sam Mewis told Rapinoe on the Just Women’s Sports Snacks Podcast. “I would look to you actually for a lot of things before I was comfortable to speak out myself because I feel like I trust your values, and I trust what you stand for.”

On a team that emphasizes the importance of leaving the squad better than you’ve found it, Rapinoe embodies the USWNT’s progressive ethos.

Teammate and fellow striker Lynn Williams remembers looking up to Rapinoe as a kid before ever sharing the pitch with her.

“Megan has always been an inspiration to me. As a kid, I would be amazed at her poise on the field and how she would always show up in big moments,” Williams told Just Women’s Sports.

“As I have gotten to know her on a personal level, I am in awe of her. She is authentically herself on and off the field. She doesn’t apologize for who she is, and more importantly her energy and positivity inspires me and many others to be authentically ourselves as well. With her, there is no ‘it’s me or it’s you’ mentality. With her, there’s a seat at the table for everyone.”

At just 24 years old, Sabrina Ionescu is one of the most undeniably talented guards in women’s basketball.

At Oregon, Ionescu garnered national fame after becoming the only NCAA Division I player ever to amass 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists in her career. Simply put, the California native changed college basketball through sheer talent.

Former Oregon teammate and current WNBA rival Ruthy Hebard explained to WSLAM in 2020 how the duo achieved so much success on offense.

“Playing with Sabrina, it was like, I don’t want to mess this up for her either. It’s really just about being strong and focusing on what I want to do and where I want to do it,” Hebard said.

Competing against Ionescu was equally as daunting, with current New York Liberty teammate Didi Richards recalling her head-to-head matchup with the star in the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

“Back then, being a sophomore, first year in the Final Four, I was nervous going against the best player, some would say, men’s and women’s. I was real nervous,” said Richards, then a guard for Baylor. “I knew I had to guard her. It was exciting. I think that was one of the games that put me on the map for sure. She’s a great player. She hit some crazy shots on me.”

Ionescu’s Oregon teammates praised her work ethic and game preparation. Former Ducks star and current Liberty teammate Nyara Sabally is anxious to reunite with Ionescu in New York. The No. 5 pick in this year’s draft will miss her rookie season while recovering from knee surgery.

“I’m thrilled that I get to share the court with [Ionescu],” Sabally said after the draft. “Obviously, ‘Sab’ is such an amazing point guard, such an amazing person. I saw her in practice every day. I saw her working every day on the court. I’m just very excited to finally share the court with her, not just in practice.”

Since her college days, Ionescu has expertly leveraged her on-court success and widespread fame. Now in her third season with the Liberty, she has inked several blockbuster deals, including a partnership with Kevin Durant and Rich Kleiman’s Thirty Five Ventures.

Ionescu’s foray into business resembles that of Osaka. After meeting on the set of an ad campaign, the two have become fast friends, with Ionescu telling Insider that she “ was always a huge fan of Naomi” before the shoot.

Osaka has been seen practicing in a Ionescu Liberty jersey, and Ionescu is eager to show her support for the tennis star.

“I watch her matches and cheer her on and we talk, whether it’s on social media or text here and there,” Ionescu added. “But I think [we’re] always supporting each other and just rooting for each other and hoping for the best and success.”

Ionescu’s game-changing collegiate career and impressive business portfolio have expanded the possibilities for athletes in women’s sports, on and off the court.

Clare Brennan is an Associate Editor at Just Women’s Sports.

2023 MVP Breanna Stewart Drops 31 Points in Liberty’s Huge Win Over Fever

breanna stewart and jonquel jones of the new york liberty celebrate win over indiana fever
Stewie and the Liberty dominated the court throughout Thursday's Fever home opener. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty dominated Indiana on Thursday night, winning by a whopping 36 points in the Fever's home opener. 

A sold-out crowd of 17,274 was in attendance to watch as star rookie Caitlin Clark finished the 102-66 defeat with nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists. It’s the first time since January 2021 — her freshman season at Iowa — that Clark's been held to single-digit scoring. 

"The physicality is definitely up there... I'm easily pushed off screens," she told reporters after the loss. "The game seems a little fast for me right now. The more I play and the more comfortable I get, it's going to slow down a little bit. It will be easier for me to make reads, see things develop."

The Fever were outscored by a combined margin of 57 points in their first two games — the largest two-game point deficit in WNBA season-opening history, according to @ESPNStatsInfo.

"We've got to get to a level of toughness," Fever coach Christie Sides in her own postgame remarks. "When things are going south on us, we're not stopping the bleeding."

"I have great perspective on everything that happens," Clark added. "It was the same in my college career. There were some moments that were absolutely amazing. And there were some moments I was not happy with how I played and how my team performed. That's just life, that's just basketball."

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, who herself experienced a rocky rookie season following a much-hyped college career, offered up some insight on the matter.

"In this league, there are tough defenses all centered around not letting you get the ball, trapping, not letting you score," Ionescu said. "There were many factors that played into what was a tough first season for me in the league, but it helps you be able to figure it out. You have to have those experiences."

But it was reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart that truly stole the show, racking up 31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks on the night.

"In general, I just wanted to come out more aggressive coming off of last game," Stewart said after putting up the 24th 30-point game in her career.

Stewart she also commended the fans inside Indianapolis's packed Gainbridge Fieldhouse, noting that she hopes that level of support to continue across the WNBA.

"This is how you want every game to be and when it's a sell-out crowd, it gives you a similar playoff atmosphere feel," she said. "People want to be a part of this and the thing now is to continue to sustain it, continue to take the momentum that we have and turn it into something more."

WNBA Commissioner Admits to ‘Faulty’ Charter Rollout

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert at 2024 wnba draft
Cathy Engelbert at the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York. (Cora Veltman/Sportico via Getty Images)

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert admitted to a "faulty rollout" of the new charter travel initiative on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Ahead of Tuesday's season opener, it was announced that the only teams flying private this week would be Indiana and Minnesota. The announcement came mere days after the league made a new charter flight program for all WNBA teams public. At the time, they said it would be implemented "as soon as we have the planes."

But as two teams out of 12 chartered to their first games of the season, others like the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky were forced to fly commercial.

A town hall meeting between Engelbert and the players was held in response to the confusion. Everything from the league's new media rights deal to private travel was covered in the meeting, with players submitting their questions ahead of time. Sky center Elizabeth Williams told Sun-Times reporter Annie Costabile afterwards that cross-country flights were prioritized.

"Flights that are across the country like [the Lynx] going to Seattle, crossing multiple time zones, or flights that usually require a connection, those were the priorities," Williams said. "That’s why New York didn’t go to DC with a charter, but Minny goes to Seattle."

What’s unclear under that metric is that the Atlanta Dream played the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday, which could technically be classified as a cross-country flight. 

On Tuesday, rookie forward Angel Reese shared a photo on her Instagram story lamenting the league's use of commercial flights.

"Just praying that this is one of the last commercial flights the Sky has to fly," Reese posted. The team still has at least three commercial flights awaiting them in the near future.

"Obviously, I think all teams should be able to get chartered," Reese told the Sun-Times. "But I know moving forward... going in the right direction, being able to have some teams [chartering] is cool. Within the next weeks, everybody will be flying charter, which will be really good."

On Thursday, Lindsay Schnell of USAToday Sports confirmed that the league intends to have all teams on charter flights by May 21st.

Brazil Wins Bid for 2027 Women’s World Cup Host

fifa womens world cup trophy on display
The FIFA Women's World Cup trophy on display in Bangkok after Brazil was announced as the 2027 host country. (Thananuwat Srirasant - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Brazil has been named the host for the 2027 Women’s World Cup, with FIFA announced early Friday. 

The decision came after a vote at the 74th FIFA Congress in Bangkok, with Brazil earning 119 votes to the joint European bid’s 78. 

This will be Brazil’s first time hosting the Women’s World Cup, with the country having hosted the men’s World Cup twice before in 1950 and 2014. It will also be the first Women’s World Cup held in South America. The tournament will follow the same 32-team format as the 2023 WWC in Australia and New Zealand.

Brazil winning the bid was not entirely surprising after FIFA issued a report just last week, stating that the Brazilian bid had pulled ahead as host following technical inspection. After evaluation, Brazil was given a score of 4.0 out of 5, compared to the 3.7 awarded to the Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Brazil ranked higher in a number of key areas, including stadiums, accommodations, fan zones, and transport infrastructure. Though considered to be a frontrunner, the US and Mexico withdrew their joint bid prior to the technical inspection period, saying they would instead focus their efforts on 2031.

On Friday, Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ednaldo Rodrigues called it a "victory." 

"We knew we would be celebrating a victory for South American women's soccer and for women," he told reporters. "You can be sure, with no vanity, we will accomplish the best World Cup for women."

"We are working on a transformation, not only for the country but for the continent," added bid team operational manager Valesca Araujo.

Brazil intends to use 10 of the venues utilized at the 2014 men’s World Cup, including holding the final in Rio de Janeiro on July 25th. The CBF's proposal outlines that the 2027 tournament run from June 24th through the end of July. Last summer’s World Cup began at the end of July and concluded on August 19th.

Another notable element of Brazil's newly unveiled plan to grow of the women’s game is that "all [men’s] clubs wishing to take part in high-level national and continental competitions must now provide a structure for a women’s team." While the definition of "structure" was not specifically identified, the country has set targets with CONMEBOL to help increase the number of women’s club teams in the country.

In last week's inspection findings, FIFA noted that selecting Brazil as the next WWC host could "have a tremendous impact on women's football in the region."

Chelsea Eyes Weekend Finale With WSL Title in Sight

chelsea players celebrate win against tottenham in the wsl
Chelsea beat Tottenham on Wednesday, moving to the top of the table in an effort to win departing coach Emma Hayes some silverware. (John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Chelsea did what they needed to do on Wednesday in order to make Saturday's slate of season-ending WSL fixtures interesting: Beat Tottenham.

The Blues are now number one in the league, with an edge over Manchester City on goal differential thanks to an eight-goal outing against Bristol City last week. 

Yesterday's result tees up a league finale for the books as Chelsea looks to send coach Emma Hayes off with another trophy to add to her cabinet. The Blues will play FA Cup winner Manchester City at Old Trafford on Saturday, while City is away at Aston Villa.

"We will be leaving nothing on the pitch, we will be giving everything and no matter what the result is," Chelsea midfielder Erin Cuthbert said after Wednesday's win. "At least we can look each other in the eye and say we gave everything."

It makes for a thrilling end to Chelsea's Emma Hayes era, as the decorated WSL coach will take over the USWNT in June. And it comes after Hayes all but conceded the title race early this month after Chelsea fell to Liverpool 4-3.

"I think the title is done," Hayes said at the time. "Of course, mathematically, it's not, but I think the title is done. Our job between now and the end of the season is to keep pushing until the end, but I think it will be very difficult.

"We will never give up. But the title is far from us; it's not in our hands. I think City are deserving, their consistency has put them in that position. Of course, we will go to the end, but I don't think the title will be going to us this year."

Be it mind games or Hayes truly thinking her team was that far off, her words lit something in Chelsea. Their following two performances showed the team’s determination to have a shot at some silverware.

As for Saturday's schedule, Hayes believes her team is facing the "tougher of the two games."

"It's a fitting finale for me, being my final game," she told BBC Sport. "As I said to the players if someone gives you a second chance in life, make sure you don't need a third one. We're in the position we want to be in, and we'll give it everything on Saturday no matter what."

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