Naomi Osaka’s US Open success is far bigger than herself

Naomi Osaka tried not to cry as the camera zoomed in on her face for the live audience watching across the country to see. She was still wearing her match clothes and bright blue visor, just moments removed from playing on Arthur Ashe Stadium, which now sat behind her, looming in the New York night sky.

She was expecting to talk about her dominant 6-3, 6-4 win over Shelby Rogers and what it meant to return to the semifinals at the US Open. She wasn’t prepared for the video she was about to see.

ESPN host Chris McKendry alerted her to the monitor nearby. There she watched messages from Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, and Marcus Arbery Sr., the father of Ahmaud Arbery — two of the names she’s featured on her masks during the tournament — and they both thanked her for the support and for representing their sons.

When it was over, she took a thoughtful pause before speaking as the tears glistened in her eyes.

“It means a lot, I feel like they’re so strong, I’m not sure what I would be able to do if I was in their position, but I feel like I’m a vessel at this point in order to spread awareness,” she said. “It’s not going to dull the pain, but hopefully I can help with anything that they need.”

It was just the latest moving moment from the 22-year-old who has emerged into one of tennis’ leading voices on issues of racism and equality.

Since beginning her run at the US Open last week, she’s worn a different mask for each match, honoring victims who have died as the result of racial injustice and police brutality in hopes of raising awareness of their stories. She has said she has seven masks — the number of matches it takes to win the tournament — and it seems clear she is determined to wear each one.

Having won the US Open in 2018, as well as the 2019 Australian Open, Osaka has shown she is more than capable of winning a major. This time feels different. She’s playing for much more than herself, and it’s much bigger than simply collecting another trophy.

In order to carry on her message, she will have to find a way to get past Jennifer Brady in the women’s semifinals on Thursday. Brady, ranked No. 41 in the world, has been one of the event’s biggest surprises, not dropping a set on her way to her first major semifinal. The 25-year-old American beat Yulia Putintseva in just 69 minutes on Tuesday and has gone from Cinderella story to legitimate contender to win the tournament.

“The thing is, I don’t think Osaka’s hit her top form yet in this tournament,” said 21-time major doubles champion and ESPN analyst Pam Shriver. “Osaka has taken on a big extra call to duty with her commitment to social justice, and it’s hard enough to just win majors. So I think the fact that Brady’s life is a little simpler right now might help. But on the other hand, Osaka is clearly really inspired. I think her goal is to wear all seven masks, and that could give her that extra motivation.”

Osaka has made herself the leader in social advocacy in tennis since arriving in New York last month. During the first tournament of the two-event bubble, she single-handedly pushed the sport into joining the athlete protests happening around the country following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Hours after the Milwaukee Bucks boycotted their NBA playoff game, Osaka announced she wouldn’t be playing in her semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open.

“Before I am an athlete, I am a black woman,” she wrote in a social media post about her decision. “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.”

As a result of her stance, the tournament paused play for the day her match was scheduled.

“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,” officials from the tournament, as well as the WTA, ATP and USTA, wrote.

For Osaka, having something else to play for is pushing her. After winning back-to-back Grand Slams, Osaka admitted she felt the weight of her success, and it took the joy from playing. Prior to the shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, Osaka failed to defend her 2019 Australian Open title, losing to teenage phenom Coco Gauff in the third round. Now she says she’s enjoying every moment on court, and not simply focused on winning.

“I feel like honestly the entire 2019, after I won Australia, I put too much pressure on myself,” she said. “I wasn’t enjoying it. When I played against Coco in Australia this year, I was just so stressed out. I just thought to myself, ‘I’m going to take the quarantine to mentally evaluate what I want to do when I come back.’ And for me, when you walk out onto Ashe, there’s a quote from Billie Jean King that says, ‘Pressure is a privilege,’ and for me I feel like it’s very true.”

She showed glimpses of the leader she could be during the 2019 US Open. Following Osaka’s win over Gauff in the third round, the then-15-year-old American began to cry. It was Osaka who went over to console her. She invited Gauff to participate in her on-court interview in a display of incredible sportsmanship as the stadium, filled to capacity, looked on. But it was during the WTA Tour’s COVID-19 suspension that she found her voice.

She went to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to protest the death of George Floyd, whose name she wore during Tuesday’s match. She later wrote an op-ed for Esquire Magazine about systemic racism and oppression and urged others to take action. When the sport resumed, she pressed on with her message. Now she has a platform on the sport’s biggest stage.

Still, she downplayed her influence when asked about the video from Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery’s parents later on Tuesday night.

“For me, it’s a bit surreal,” she said. “It’s extremely touching that they would feel touched by what I’m doing. For me, I feel like what I’ve doing is nothing. It’s a speck of what I could be doing.”

No matter how humble she may be, she will leave the tournament a winner. Just ask her peers.

“She’s special on and off court, [about] what she stands for,” Frances Tiafoe said last week. “I have been a fan ever since she popped off in the Open here a couple years ago, and even before that. Always nice and quiet, but to see actually her use her platforms and go crazy, it’s special. You tip your hat off to that.

“You had a whole movement, you had Bleacher Report, everything, going crazy that she didn’t play Cincinnati. That’s special. I bet a lot of people weren’t for that. But she believed in something. She’s coming out with a different mask every night. She’s trending. She definitely figured out, she’s definitely woke. I’m proud of her.”

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