Fight for Championship and Racial Justice

by Kira Tian

How Naomi Osaka won the U.S. Open while advocating BLM

Google Images

Walking into the court each time with a customized mask featuring the name of a victim of police brutality, Naomi Osaka fought her way to the finals of the U.S. Open. During the Women's Singles finals on September 12th, Osaka wore a mask with the name “Tamir Rice”— a 12-year old black boy killed by a Cleveland white police officer in 2014. On the court, Osaka played against Victoria Azarenka, scoring 1-6 6-3, and 6-3. Azarenka controlled the court, but this didn’t stop Osaka from winning; she became the first woman in two decades to lose the opening set and still win a U.S. final. This victory was Osaka’s second in the U.S. Open: she defeated Serena Williams in 2018, at the young age of 21. In her young career, Osaka has already established herself as both a successful tennis player and a successful activist. Athletes should follow Osaka’s footsteps and raise awareness about racial injustice through their platform and publicity.

The Blacks Lives Matter movement served as the theme that accompanied Osaka through her championship run. During the six games leading up to the finals, Osaka wore masks that featured the names of people such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Philando Castile, and Trayvon Martin — all high-profile African-American victims who were killed by the police. She told the Washington Post that she decided to wear these masks to spread awareness about systematic racism; she said, “the more people know the story, then the more interested they’ll become in it. It’s quite sad that seven masks isn’t [sic] enough for the amount [sic] of names.” She wanted to “make people start talking”. As a black woman herself, she prioritized racial justice before tennis because she believes those are the “more important matters at hand that need immediate attention.” However, she was not always like this.

She didn’t realize the severity of police brutality until George Floyd’s death on May 27th. She said that she had “been inside of the bubble so [she had] not really [been] sure [about] what [was] really going on in the outside world”. She has grown since 2018 when she accepted her trophy apologetically as the crowd booed at Carlos Ramos, the infamous chair umpire who claimed that Osaka’s opponent, Serena Williams, was a cheater. After she learned more about the situation, she “re-evaluated what [was] actually important in [her] life” and wondered what she could be “doing to make a difference”. After the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, she threatened to forfeit her semi-final match of the Western & Southern Open to protest, making the WTA reschedule the date. She has also attended protests and marches in LA and Minneapolis. Ultimately, she made her own powerful contribution to the movement in the U.S. Open.

Despite her actions in relation to racial injustice, many people criticized and mocked her. Critics said that activism is a distraction for players as it adds emotional pressure and that bringing “politics” into the game is wrong. Even with the backlash, Osaka did not back down. She said that it is a “human rights issue” and hated “when random people say athletes shouldn’t be involved with politics and [should] just entertain.” She responded to her critics saying that the people telling her to “keep politics out of sports” (although her actions weren’t actually political at all) inspired her to win. In a tweet after she won the U.S. Open, she claimed: “You better believe I’m gonna try to be on your TV for as long as possible.” As the WTA third-ranked tennis player at the age of 23, Naomi will surely remain in the spotlight for years to come.

Osaka’s persistence, not just in tennis but also in activism, makes her an excellent role model. Her accomplishments on the tennis court will continue to grow alongside her battle for racial justice. More athletes, like what many NBA players are already doing, will likely follow in her footsteps and use their platforms to raise awareness about the issues in our world.