In Depth

Naomi Osaka: a true champion for tennis and human rights

Japanese star makes a huge statement with victory at the US Open

What will this year’s US Open tennis grand slam be remembered for? 

Will it be the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic that saw a number of top men and women players withdraw over health fears and fans miss out from attending the event in New York? 

Could it be Dominic Thiem finally breaking his major duck by coming back from two sets down to beat Alexander Zverev in the men’s final? 

Or will it be how a 22-year-old from Japan became the women’s champion again, but also emerged as one of global sport’s most influential personalities? 

Naomi Osaka may have won her third grand slam, and second US Open title, with a 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory over Victoria Azarenka in Saturday’s women’s final. However, the triumph in New York will be remembered for much more than just her talent on the tennis court.  

‘Enough was finally enough’

Osaka, who also won the US Open in 2018, has made the headlines in New York these past few weeks by taking a stand in support of racial inequality protests. 

She forced a “pause in play” at the Western & Southern Open, The Guardian reported, by initially withdrawing from the semi-final to join the widespread boycott by stars from various American sports. 

Then before each of her seven matches at the grand slam she wore face masks displaying the name of a different black victim of alleged police or racial violence in the US, CNN said. The names highlighted were: Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice.

The BBC reports that the killing of George Floyd was the first sign Osaka began to “find her voice”.

In an op-ed for Esquire magazine, Osaka explained why she flew to Minneapolis days after Floyd’s death and how she felt a “call to action”. She wrote: “My heart ached. Enough was finally enough.”

Born to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, coincidentally in the Japanese city of Osaka, she moved to New York with her family when she was three years old and spent her formative years growing up in the United States. 

In the Esquire article she admits that for “as long as I can remember, people have struggled to define me”.

She said: “I’ve never really fit into one description - but people are so fast to give me a label. Is she Japanese? American? Haitian? Black? Asian? Well, I’m all of these things together at the same time. 

“I was born in Osaka, Japan to a Haitian father and Japanese mother. I’m a daughter, a sister, a friend, and a girlfriend. I’m Asian, I’m Black, and I’m female. I’m as normal a 22-year-old as anyone, except I happen to be good at tennis. I’ve accepted myself as just me: Naomi Osaka.”

Naomi Osaka wore a mask with George Floyd’s name on it at the US Open
‘Top of her game’

The world of sport often creates icons and this year at the US Open Osaka has emerged not only as one of the top tennis players, but also an activist and person with considerable influence. 

She proved herself “a champion on and off the court”, says The Guardian, and by wearing masks to highlight racial inequality it “shows the type of mental strength that glues the US Open winner’s game together”. 

Meanwhile, Women’s Agenda magazine says she’s “undoubtedly near the top of her game” and is also “growing into herself as a person, finding her voice on social issues like the Black Lives Matter movement”.

Family members of victims sent messages to congratulate Osaka on her triumph while figures from the world of sport also saluted the Japanese star. Tennis icon Martina Navratilova said “social justice and sports do mix - and quite nicely” while NBA star LeBron James praised Osaka for her “great comeback”.

Desire to win 

The final word must go to the champion herself. Speaking after the final against Azarenka, Osaka said the experiences of the past six months gave her the drive to win. “It made me stronger,” she told ESPN. “Because I had more desire to win, because I want to show more names.” 

When asked what message would be sent with the masks, she turned the question on her interviewer, Yahoo reports. “What was the message that you got?” she said. “The point is to make people start talking.”

Judging by the reactions of the media and the messages from fans, Osaka has achieved just that and more. 

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