Naomi Osaka could settle for just being excellent. At 23, she’s already one of the greatest tennis players in the world. It would be easy for her to stay silent, rest on her accolades, and rely solely on being young and gifted; the thing is, she’s Black, too. And while Black excellence has always come with responsibility, being young, gifted and Black in 2020 means using your platform for protest.
Even if it’s what her naysayers would like, Osaka doesn’t have the luxury of “sticking to sports.” So, during the US Open in early September, when the two-time Grand Slam winner served her way to her third title wearing seven masks for seven matches — each adorned with the name of a Black person murdered at the hands of police — she solidified her place in history as not just a role model for young Black girls, but as an activist for Black lives.
Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice. With each mask she wore, Osaka — whose father is Haitian and mother is Japanese (she was born in Japan and plays for the country) — made it impossible for anyone to analyse her wins or honour her brilliance without also saying those names. When she swaggered into the stadium in those masks, that’s when it was clear something had shifted in Osaka.
Two years ago, Osaka was the shy kid who covered her eyes with her visor so people wouldn’t see her cry after she beat her hero — the GOAT, Serena Williams — to nab her first Grand Slam title under circumstances overshadowed by racism and sexism (specifically due to questionable calls made by official Carlos Ramos). Back then, you could tell Osaka would rather be anywhere than in the spotlight. By this September, though, she was a mature, self-assured young woman who stood up to ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi when he asked, “You had seven matches, seven masks, seven names… what was the message you wanted to send?” Osaka looked straight at him, with her signature steely gaze and unwavering composure, and said bluntly, “Well, what was the message you got, is more the question. I feel like the point was to make people start talking.”
Her point was made. Aside from her stunning display at the US Open, Osaka spent the summer encouraging people in Japan to join Black Lives Matter protests, she boycotted her semi-final match at the Western & Southern Open, put her notes app to work writing blistering statements against the "continued genocide" of Black people at the hands of police, and wrote an op-ed in Esquire after George Floyd was killed, stating unequivocally that she “support[s] the movement to defund the police.”
Osaka’s actions would be notable no matter what her profession, but, don’t forget, Osaka plays in a predominately white sport. She’s dealing with the country-club crowd, the “sponsored by Rolex” audience, and a league that tried at every turn to chase out and diminish the accomplishments of the Williams sisters, just because they were Black. It’s a sport that still can’t handle that Serena is its undisputed Queen.
Osaka put sponsorships on the line to speak her truth. She risked backlash and alienation. She did it anyway. Yes, Osaka is walking through doors that Serena and Venus Williams kicked down, but by using her voice to speak out against systemic anti-Black racism and police brutality, she is making sure those doors are wide open for the next Black girl with big tennis dreams.
We’ve already seen her extend selfless gestures of grace and Black solidarity to her opponent and rising star, Coco Gauff. After defeating Gauff to win her second US Open, Osaka asked the teary 15-year-old to join her for the on-court interview. It was an epic and emotional display of Black girl magic, the embodiment of something Osaka would say this year, after the Western & Southern Open boycott: “Before I am an athlete, I am a Black woman.” 2020 made it clear that Osaka takes that approach in everything she does. With every powerful demonstration of activism, Osaka is reminding the world that she is young, gifted and Black. And that is what makes her a champion.