As with many prominent athletes this year, tennis star Naomi Osaka has felt compelled to use her platform to spread social justice messages. After sitting out a semifinal match tournament last month in support of the Milwaukee Bucks’ wildcat strike, Osaka chose to draw attention to the victims of police brutality and vigilante violence by wearing the names of a different victim on each one of her pre-game face masks. On Tuesday night, the 22-year-old received statements of gratitude and congratulations from the families of the victims.
“Thank you for the support [of] my family and God bless you for what you’re doing,” Ahmaud Arbery’s father, Marcus Aubery Sr., told her.
“I just want to say thank you to Naomi Osaka for representing Trayvon Martin on your customized mask, and also for Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor,” said Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother. “We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Continue to do well, continue to kick butt at the U.S. Open.”
Osaka, who was shown the videos by an ESPN reporter, was visibly moved by the messages.
“It means a lot,” Osaka said. “They’re so strong. I’m not sure what I would be able to do if I was in their position. I feel like I’m a vessel at this point in order to spread awareness.”
Later that evening at a press conference, Osaka confessed she was “trying really hard not to cry,” as she listened to parents’ messages, reports the BBC.
“It’s a bit surreal. It’s extremely touching that they would feel touched by what I’m doing. For me, I feel like what I’ve been doing is nothing. It’s a speck of what I could be doing,” she said.
Throughout the tournament, Osaka has been wearing masks printed with the names of seven different victims of police and vigilante violence—one for each match, should she make it to the finals.
The tennis star, currently number four in the world among women players, also sat out her semifinal match of the Western & Southern Open on Aug. 26, in solidarity with NBA players who opted not to play in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis.
“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,” the 2018 U.S. Open champion said in a statement posted on Twitter in both English and Japanese.
While the masks are a small gesture, not dissimilar from the ways other American athletes have worn the names of police brutality victims on their apparel, Osaka is cognizant of tennis’ global audience, and specifically wants to target people who may not be familiar with Breonna Taylor or Trayvon Martin.
“I think tennis, people watch it all around the world and things that we think are common names are probably not common overseas,” Osaka, who represents Japan on the court, said. “For me, I just want people to have more knowledge. I feel like the platform that I have right now is something that I used to take for granted and I just feel like I should be using it for something.”
So far at the tournament, Osaka has so far honored Arbery, Martin, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and George Floyd. She faces off against the United States’ Jennifer Brady on Thursday in the semifinal.