The sports world took a historic and deeply significant timeout on Wednesday in support of Black lives and in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. Among the number of elite athletes and teams staging spontaneous strikes was tennis star Naomi Osaka, who canceled her Thursday semifinals match at the 2020 Western & Southern Open, compelling the tournament to subsequently pause play for the day.
“[B]efore I am an athlete, I am a black woman,” tweeted Osaka, who is of Japanese-Haitian descent. “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,” she continued, adding hashtags. “Watching the continued genocide of Black people at the hand of the police is honestly making me sick to my stomach. I’m exhausted of having a new hashtag pop up every few days and I’m extremely tired of having this same conversation over and over again. When will it ever be enough?”
On Thursday afternoon, the Guardian reported that Osaka has since agreed to play a rescheduled semifinal on Friday, issuing a statement to the outlet which read:
As you know, I pulled out of the tournament yesterday in support of racial injustice and continued police violence. I was (and am) ready and prepared to concede the match to my opponent. However, after my announcement and lengthy consultation with the WTA and USTA, I have agreed at their request to play on Friday. They offered to postpone all matches until Friday and in my mind that brings more attention to the movement. I want to thank the WTA and the Tournament for their support.
The triumph may seem minor, but it nonetheless demonstrates that at 22, the 2018 and 2019 Grand Slam champion has emerged as not only a formidable force in the tennis world (and currently the world’s highest-paid female athlete, thanks to numerous sponsorships, including Nike) but is exercising her power in speaking freely on issues of social justice. Osaka even attended the protests for George Floyd in May, joining rapper boyfriend Cordae on the streets of Minneapolis. She recently recounted the trip for Wall Street Journal Magazine (WSJ) as the star of their latest cover story while also making an appearance on the cover of HighSnobiety’s digital magazine this month, where she models her new Nike Blazer collaboration with Japanese-founded luxury brand Comme des Garçons.
“I’ve always watched protests on TV, and I never had the chance to go because I was always playing tennis,” she said, later adding: “Everyone was so passionate...I thought it was really powerful.”
“Just going there and seeing how the whole city was at that moment…it was definitely something surreal for me,” she told HighSnobiety. “And I just started thinking, ‘Even if one person cares about what I say, then maybe that person will show another person.’”
While Osaka didn’t widely publicize her participation in the protests, she began posting content in support of Black Lives Matter. Predictably, there were those who presumed to tell the young athlete she should stick to sports, prompting her to tweet (h/t WSJ):
“I hate when random people say athletes shouldn’t get involved with politics and just entertain. Firstly, this is a human rights issue. Secondly, what gives you more right to speak than me? By that logic if you work at IKEA you are only allowed to talk about the ‘GRÖNLID?’”
Doubling down, Osaka penned a poignant essay for Esquire this July in which she discussed the impact of her Minneapolis visit and backed defunding the police, writing (in part):
In the past few months, I’ve re-evaluated what’s actually important in my life. It’s a reset that perhaps I greatly needed. I asked myself, “If I couldn’t play tennis, what could I be doing to make a difference?” I decided it was time to speak up...for every George, there is a Brianna, a Michael, a Rayshard. The sad list goes on. That’s just the tragedies captured on camera. I remember watching the outrage at Michael Brown’s case in 2014, and nothing has really changed since. Black people have been fighting this oppression alone for so many years and progress has been fleeting at best. Being “not racist” is not enough. We have to be anti-racist.
Osaka is clearly growing into her activism and platform, one she was only beginning to become accustomed to when The Glow Up interviewed her in early 2019 in celebration of her becoming a Barbie “Shero.”
“I think when I was younger, I used to try to brush away the responsibility,” a seemingly shy Osaka told us at the time. “But now, there’s been incidents [where] people come up to me and they start crying, and I realize how important it is to be a role model...I think that’s a really big honor, and I’m grateful that I have that responsibility.”
“She is starting to figure out what she cares about in the public eye—she is learning herself while we are learning about her,” LeBron James’ longtime business partner Maverick Carter told WSJ, which reports he and James, are currently executive producing a documentary series on Osaka for Netflix.
The facts of Osaka’s stature already speak for themselves; she is the first Asian or Haitian tennis player to be ranked No. 1 and only the fifth Black woman and only Japanese player ever to win a Grand Slam. But as Serena Williams, Osaka’s hero and opponent in a very memorable 2018 Women’s U.S. Open finals, told WSJ, this moment demands more.
“If you are an athlete and you don’t say something, there’s a problem,” she said. Osaka, who has faced her share of discrimination and derision as a Black woman representing Japan, clearly agrees.
“There’s a time when you kind of have to talk about things. Like, you can’t just keep shoving it under the rug,” she told HighSnobiety. “For me, what I want is people being more aware.”
“I’ve been figuring out my voice more,” she explained to WSJ. “I definitely think it’s time to start gaining confidence and taking on what you feel.”
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