Where EAST meets the Northwest
MASK MESSAGES. Naomi Osaka holds up the US Open championship trophy while
posing for photographs at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on
September 13, 2020 in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Naomi Osaka hits balls into the stands after defeating Anett Kontaveit of
Estonia during the fourth round of the US Open championship. (AP Photo/Frank
From The Asian Reporter, V30, #11 (October 5, 2020), page 10.
Fame brings Osaka the chance to fight racism
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
Just as the sports world was rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic, another crisis
shook it to its foundation. Sparked by the murders of Black people by police and
vigilantes, people surged into the streets in protest, and many athletes
struggled with how to support their cause.
When Jacob Blake, another Black man, was shot by police in August, the
protests continued with greater force, and the athletes elevated their support
too. Baseball, soccer, and basketball games were postponed when players refused
to play in protest. In tennis, Japan’s Naomi Osaka joined them, finding her own
way to deliver an anti-racism message.
Osaka delivered her message during two tournaments, the Western & Southern
Open and the US Open, played within two weeks of each other in New York City due
to the coronavirus. She made her first statement after advancing to the Western
& Southern semifinals, which was scheduled for the day after the other sports
postponements. In solidarity with those athletes, Osaka announced she would not
play in the semifinals.
She said, "before I am an athlete, I am a Black woman. And as a Black woman I
feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate
attention, rather than watching me play tennis."
Osaka’s declaration drew on her heritage as the daughter of a Japanese woman
and a Haitian man. Though she was born in Japan, Osaka has spent most of her
life in the United States, where she has felt the racism she is protesting.
Her determination to speak out is a recent development. In early May, Osaka
revealed that she’s always been painfully shy, which has kept her silent on
issues about her life and about society. But that was about to change. "I’m done
being shy," she wrote on Twitter. When the death of George Floyd in late May
first ignited the protests, she was one of the first athletes to join the
In July, she penned an editorial for Esquire about the racism she has
faced and how proud she is that Black Lives Matter protests have even spread to
Japan. She wrote that she sees herself, along with other biracial athletes like
Rui Hachimura, as "the future of Japan." And she recognizes her power as both a
role model for young Japanese biracial girls and a superstar athlete who can
raise awareness of "systemic racism and police brutality."
Osaka’s voice is made more powerful when she wins, which she has done
consistently since her 2018 breakthrough. That year, she won the US Open,
becoming the first Asian, man or woman, to win a tennis major, and she also won
the BNP Paribas Open, sometimes called "the fifth major."
In 2019, Osaka followed up her US Open victory by winning the Australian
Open, a back-to-back major victory that earned her the No. 1 spot in the world
tennis rankings. That year, she won two more tournaments, one in Japan and
another in China.
She’s continued her success in 2020. After her dramatic statement at the
Western & Southern, the tournament organizers postponed her match until the
following day. Osaka won her rescheduled semifinal but tweaked her hamstring and
had to withdraw from the final against Victoria Azarenka. She also wanted to
recuperate before the US Open, just days later.
At the US Open, Osaka made her second statement to raise awareness about
racism. To win the tournament, she needed to win seven matches, so she had seven
special coronavirus face masks made. Each one bore the name of a different
victim of racist violence: Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery,
Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile, and Tamir Rice.
Osaka wore the masks before and after each match — and she used all seven of
them, battling her way to the final. There, she again faced Azarenka, who had
ousted Serena Williams in the semifinals, and Azarenka nearly triumphed again.
Azarenka stormed to an early lead, winning the first set, 6-1, in just 26
minutes. She carried that momentum into the second set, winning the first two
matches and leading 40-30 in the third game when Osaka suddenly turned it
around. Osaka won six of the next seven games to take the second set, 6-3.
Azarenka battled hard in the third set, but Osaka had won 11 straight third
sets in Grand Slam competition, and she kept the streak alive this year. Osaka
won the third set, 6-3, becoming the first woman since 1994 to win the US Open
final after dropping the first set. Osaka also became the first women’s player
since Maria Sharapova in 2008 to win three majors before turning 23, and she is
just the sixth woman to win her first three major finals since the Open Era
began in 1968.
In May, Osaka became the world’s highest-paid female athlete, and the US Open
victory will further boost her earnings and profile, helping spread her message
even more. She has already been named to TIME’s annual list of the 100
most influential people for the second year in a row. And she led off a recent
Forbes feature called "A Decade of Disruption," about the 10 most
prominent young game-changers from the last decade of its annual Forbes
"30 Under 30" list.
Osaka recognizes how to use her stage to further her causes, and others are
seeing and appreciating her efforts. After the US Open quarterfinals, ESPN
showed Osaka video messages from Trayvon Martin’s mother and Ahmaud Arbery’s
father, thanking her for raising awareness of the death of their sons and others
But social justice is not Osaka’s only motivation; she also draws inspiration
from her heritage. After her US Open victory, she proclaimed on Twitter, "I
would like to thank my ancestors because every time I remember their blood runs
through my veins I am reminded that I cannot lose." With her values, talent, and
motivation, we can expect to see Osaka win — and deliver her powerful messages —
long into the future.
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