Naomi Osaka’s Olympic lesson is an unconventional one

By Sharada Iyer — Tennis With An Accent

Naomi Osaka crashed out of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games, losing to the Czech Republic’s Marketa Vondrousova in the third round of the women’s tennis tournament in Japan earlier this week. Yet, the Japanese star was a winner even before she played her first match.

The World No. 2’s moment in the light — getting to carry the Olympic torch at Friday’s Opening Ceremony and light the ceremonial Olympic cauldron — is only a part of the road leading up to this tale of victory. In a way, all of Osaka’s highs and lows in the past year – her third major title at the 2020 U.S. Open while standing up for the cause of Black Lives Matter, followed by winning her fourth, a few months later, at the 2021 Australian Open, and then her decision to not play tournaments in order to prioritize her mental health – have all been part of this tale of victory.

For making the latter choice — pulling out of the French Open right after she won her first-round match, then opting out of Wimbledon — Osaka drew criticism in the present moment which lingers today, months later. Yet, she has stayed unfazed, proving that whatever may come her way, she’ll do things her way to help herself instead of simply attempting to justify her stance. Likewise, she has also been undeterred in standing up to abrasive critics – right up to the eve of the Olympics – before shutting down the conversation on her terms, decisively.

Osaka has been able to stand her ground so firmly because of her willingness to tackle subjects that are seldom brought to the table of conversation. Despite her lack of hesitation to be vocal about these topics, the practical approach to discussing them hasn’t been entirely problem-free. This was evidenced in the brief chaos that erupted during the 2020 Western and Southern Open that was held in New York right before last year’s U.S. Open.

Osaka first withdrew from the tournament – before her semifinal against Elise Mertens – in order to make a statement against the police brutality displayed against a Black American, Jacob Blake, before she reconsidered her decision. She was convinced to play on by the USTA and WTA. Matches for a day were, consequentially, postponed by the organizers and rescheduled for the following day.

The immediate confusion surrounding her choices then, however, couldn’t take away the point that was being reinforced by Osaka. Likewise, her efforts also brought the sensitiveness of the subjects to the foreground while showing that tennis players, too, were sensitive to the world around them, outside of their competitive bubble.

Osaka has been able to do all these at the age of 23 because of a perspicacity the likes of which many don’t possess after living a full lifetime, and which many others haven’t wanted to inculcate in the first place. This has meant taking decisions which haven’t appealed to a common or comfortable mindset across the world. These stances have invited friction, as Osaka knew they would.

In doing all of these things, the Japanese star is slowly effectuating a line of thought that there’s a viable alternative to conventionality if one were to look for it. She is also creating an awareness that, just because tradition is the norm, there’s no reason why it should be sustained if someone doesn’t feel it serves a good purpose.

This week in Tokyo, in her opening two matches, Osaka looked like she had settled into a rhythm even as the debate surrounding her recent actions hovered in the background. While she acknowledged its presence, Osaka redirected the conversation to her participation at the Games themselves.

“I feel like more than anything I’m just focused on playing tennis,” Osaka shared.

“Playing the Olympics has been a dream of mine since I was a kid. I feel like the break that I took was very needed, but I feel definitely a little bit refreshed and happy again. I know that I’m playing against the best players in the world and I haven’t played in a while, so of course I want to win the gold medal like everyone in the tournament does, but I’m taking it one match at a time.”

The abrupt ending of her Olympic journey at the hands of Vondrousova did scupper Osaka’s hopes as an athlete representing the host nation at the quadrennial event. But just as this upset only means a rerouting of her professional expectations, this one result doesn’t also mean the end of the road of Osaka’s attempts to improve the existing ethos of the world she inhabits. Lighting the Olympic cauldron is therefore symbolic of the long road Osaka has traveled to ignite this fire of awareness before the world at large.

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