Writers talk about their voices, as do vocalists. Naomi Osaka, the new 2020 U.S. Open champion, boldly sang her way to victory at the Open because she first found her voice off court. If she hadn’t heard that voice of activism – and followed it – she may not have been the one hoisting the bigger trophy on Saturday, September 12.
Osaka first tapped into her voice during the Western & Southern Championships, which were played at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York, due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. She refused to play her semifinal match against Elise Mertens “in reaction to the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin,” as posted on social media. She was the highest ranking player remaining in the draw – No. 4 – on that day. The NBA had also reacted to the shooting of Jacob Blake, calling off their scheduled games that day.
Sport was flexing a newfound group of muscles.
The WTA, ATP and USTA were quick to react to Osaka’s announcement. They said play would be canceled for August 27 and that it would resume the next day. “As a sport, tennis is collectively taking a stance against racial inequality and social injustice that once again has been thrust to the forefront in the United States,” the three bodies wrote.
Osaka’s decision to stand up for the injustices she’s witnessed presented a stark change in her prior posture, most readily seen in her social media posts. They were usually lighthearted in nature and somewhat obscure unless you got the joke, so to say. Her shift towards activism started after the death of George Floyd in early June in Minneapolis. She even flew there, along with her boyfriend rapper YBN Cordae, to be part of the protests.
“There comes a time when silence is betrayal,” and “Just because it doesn’t happen to you doesn’t mean it isn’t happening,” Reuters reported.
Her activism stance matched those of other big-name sports figures such as Michael Jordan and Lewis Hamilton, who spoke out on racial inequities. Osaka was also moved to write an article for Esquire magazine that not only took up questions about racial equality but, in addition, similar issues around the world and her birthplace, Japan. (Osaka was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father.)
The title of the July 1 Esquire piece revealed growth of a new kind for Osaka, “I Never Would’ve Imagined Writing This Two Years Ago.”
In the piece, she did her best to define herself and break clear of labels she thought had defined her in the past. She took time, which was plentiful after tennis shut down due to the pandemic, to look at herself. She asked “If I couldn’t play tennis, what would I be doing to make a difference?”, according to the article. She admitted that her first major title, which was won two years ago at the U. S. Open, “changed my life overnight.” Basically, she “felt a call to action” after seeing the “horrific video” of George Floyd’s “murder.”
After she returned to Los Angeles, where she lives with Cordae, she signed petitions and tackled issues about Japan, calling it a “very homogeneous country.”
All these experiences – the Floyd video, Jacob Blake’s shooting, her trip to Minneapolis, her willingness to write about her shifts in attitude – have transformed Osaka into a better professional tennis player because they have awakened Osaka to a self she never knew existed. This new self had a platform not only on a tennis court, but a voice for change that could be heard through all kinds of media channels. In a word, she matured.
Over the seven rounds in New York, Osaka struggled. She played four matches that went three sets, in the first week: Round one versus Misaki Doi from Japan and round three versus 18-year-old Marta Kostyuk. She repeated the three-set rhythm in the semifinals, and most notably in the final against two-time major champion Victoria Azarenka.
Osaka could do nothing against the power and placement of shots from Azarenka in the first set, losing it 6-1. ESPN commentators noted that no woman had won the Open in the last 25 years who had not won the first set. But Osaka broke that drought, coming back to grab the title, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3.
One crucial game, in the third set, told the tale: Osaka bundled her tennis brilliance with newfound confidence in herself and her role in women’s tennis. She was on the verge of losing a break advantage, down three game points. She wiped away all three, saving a crucial edge as Azarenka elevated her game in a final push for the title. The score was 4-1. That game showed the world and Osaka her inner strength that has blossomed since early June. She no longer was just a one-dimension tennis player, a witty person in interviews, or an embarrassed woman who spoke softly. This woman was a well-rounded champion who conquered the tightest of moments, pressure moments, a trait she’ll feed on for throughout her career.
“There were definitely a lot of hard times,” Osaka told the press in her post-final interview. “I got through it because during quarantine I just wanted to set myself up to possibly win this tournament. I thought about what I wanted to accomplish and what I wanted people to remember me by. I came in to this tournament with that mindset and it definitely helped me out.”
Osaka will be remembered for her U. S. Open victory and for her activism. The seven names inscribed on her seven masks, all the victims of police injustice, will all also be remembered. They are: Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice.