NEW YORK — Over two weeks, Naomi Osaka used her platform as a world-famous athlete to draw attention to the racial injustice and systematic police brutality that has resulted in a wave of protests in the United States.
The spotlight she cast on the Black Lives Matter movement would not have been as bright as it was, though, had she not won all seven of her matches on the way to claiming the U.S. Open title at an empty Flushing Meadows in New York, all the while delivering on a personal goal she revealed after the first round.
Osaka went viral on social media at the end of the last month after walking onto the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium wearing a face mask bearing the name of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed by Louisville police in March.
“I have seven masks,” Osaka said after her opening-round win over fellow Japanese Misaki Doi. “It’s quite sad that seven isn’t enough given the number of names (of people killed). Hopefully, I’ll make the final and you can see them all.”
Six names followed — Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd and Philando Castile, and finally, Tamir Rice, a 12-year old boy who was fatally shot in 2014 by a white police officer while holding a toy gun.
Osaka came back from a set down to beat two-time major winner Victoria Azarenka in a thrilling women’s singles final on Sept. 12, capturing her second U.S. Open championship, third Grand Slam title and securing a return to No. 3 in the world rankings.
During the trophy ceremony, the 22-year-old was asked what message she wanted to send with the seven names. “The message you got is more the question,” she replied. “I feel like the point was to make people start talking.”
She succeeded and was publicly thanked by families of the alleged victims of police violence which she admitted had jarred her emotions. “I was just trying really hard not to cry,” Osaka said in a press conference after her win. “It’s extremely touching that they would feel touched by what I’m doing.
“I’m not sure what I would be able to do if I was in their position but I feel like I’m a vessel at this point, in order to spread awareness,” Osaka said. “It’s not going to dull the pain, but hopefully I can help with anything that they need.”
Born to a Haitian father and Japanese mother in Japan, Osaka immigrated to the United States when she was 3 years old and has been in the racial minority her whole life. She grew up listening to her father tell stories about his home island in the Caribbean which is among the world’s poorest countries outside of Africa.
During the WTA Tour’s coronavirus shutdown, Osaka went out and participated in BLM demonstrations in support of the movement. Last month, she stopped playing at the Western and Southern Open — a U.S. Open tune-up event held in New York this year to prevent the spread of the virus — while joining a series of sports boycotts across the United States calling for social justice and an end to police violence.
“Before I am an athlete, I am a black woman,” she said on Twitter. “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.”
She continued her campaign after tournament organizers postponed all matches to show their solidarity with the movement, before pulling out with a hamstring injury ahead of her scheduled final, also against Azarenka.
At the U.S. Open, Osaka decided to take a different approach as the impact of sports protests around the country inevitably waned.
Osaka’s activism on and off the court was praised by peers in her home country, where professional athletes generally shy away from taking a political stand for fear of upsetting corporate sponsors and alienating fans.