Naomi Osaka’s rise to the top can be pinpointed to the moment the then 20-year-old won the U.S. Open title in 2018 over the person who inspired her to delve into the sport in the first place, Serena Williams. Since then, the 22-year-old rising tennis star has added two more Grand Slam titles under her belt, including the big win at the 2020 U.S. Open against Victoria Azarenka.
While revered for her tennis prowess at a young age, Osaka has been known to use her platform beyond her status in sports. Now, the 22-year-old champ is sharing the spotlight to highlight social justice issues and boost them to a global audience.
Osaka’s early life
Osaka and her sister, Mari, were born 18 months apart in Osaka, Japan to a Japanese mother, Tamaki Osaka, and Haitian-American father, Leonard Maxine Francois. Due to the country’s stance on outsiders, the sisters took their mother’s last name. When Naomi was three, the family of four left Japan for the United States and moved to Long Island with her father’s parents. While the Osaka sisters lived normal lives, the center of their universe was tennis.
In 2006, they moved to Florida and amped up their training, leaving public school in lieu of online-schooling so they could hone their craft of tennis. The two Osaka girls, akin to the Williams sisters, became close on the courts, though Mari’s injuries set her back. Naomi followed the paths of both Venus and Serena Williams, skipping junior tournaments and starting right on pro satellite tours. In 2013, she went pro, and just three years later, she was chosen by the Women’s Tennis Association as Newcomer of the Year.
Osaka continued to rise in the ranks, leading her to the major upset of the 2018 U.S. Open when she defeated her idol, Serena Williams, and became the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam.
Activism at the 2020 U.S. Open
Osaka’s spree of activism began in August after she opted out of the semi-finals match in the Western & Southern Open in reaction to the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin.
“Before I am an athlete, I am a Black woman,” she wrote in a post on Twitter that night. “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. I don’t expect anything drastic to happen with me not playing, but if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport I consider that a step in the right direction.”
Several hours after her announcement, the tournament paused play for the day.
Her activism continued on the court a short month later in the U.S. Open. Beyond her winning streak and eventual victory of the tournament, Osaka made headlines for something other than her skillset. The 22-year-old abided by the tournament’s coronavirus guidelines by wearing a mask while entering the court. Osaka took the opportunity to personalize each plain black mask with a chilling touch, each printed with the name of a Black person whose death has become a pillar in protests across the country fighting against racial injustices.
The tennis star donned seven masks in total honoring Black lives lost throughout the past decade, including Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile, and Tamir Rice.
Osaka received a message from the families of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery after one of her matches. Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s mother, and Marcus Arbery, father of the late Ahmaud, sent personalized videos to the 22-year-old to thank her for giving their sons a platform.
“I just want to say ‘thank you’ to Naomi Osaka for representing Travyon Martin on your customized mask and also for Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor,” Fulton said. “We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Continue to do well, continue to kick butt at the U.S. Open. Thank you.”
“Naomi, I just wanted to tell you thank you for the support of my family and God bless you for what you’re doing and you supporting our family and our son,” Arbery said, addressing Osaka. “My family appreciates that. God bless you.”
When asked what it means to her, Osaka responded, “It means a lot. They’re so strong, I’m not sure what I’d be able to do if I was in their position. I feel like I’m a vessel at this point.. to spread awareness. It’s not going to dull the pain, but hopefully, I can help with anything that they need.”
Photo Credit: Naomi Osaka Instagram