New York – Naomi Osaka said she wants to be known for more than just tennis, suggesting she will keep campaigning for racial justice after winning her third Grand Slam at the U.S. Open Saturday.
Osaka, of Japanese and Haitian heritage, wore different masks honoring victims of systemic racism and police brutality in the United States in each of the tournament’s seven rounds.
The 22-year-old said thinking time during the coronavirus lockdown, which coincided with protests across the United States over the killing of Black man George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, had led to her political awakening.
“I would definitely say it’s been an important few months,” Osaka told reporters after coming from a set down to beat Victoria Azarenka 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, inside Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“For me, my life was always go-go tennis-wise, especially after the previous U.S. Open that I won (in 2018). It definitely accelerated things, and I’ve never had a chance to slow down.
“The quarantine definitely gave me a chance to think a lot about things — what I want to accomplish, what I want people to remember me by. I came into this tournament, or these two tournaments, with that mindset.”
Osaka first took an activist stance at the Western & Southern Open, a U.S. Open tune-up event, when she threatened not to play her semifinal match in protest at the police shooting of Black man Jacob Blake in Wisconsin.
She said she was “sick to her stomach” and “exhausted” by repeated violence against Black people by U.S. police.
Her decision prompted the WTA and ATP to postpone all semifinal matches by a day, inspiring Osaka to change her mind and make herself available for the final.
Osaka’s move came after the Milwaukee Bucks led a historic boycott over the shooting, forcing the NBA to halt its playoff schedule and prompting a wave of walkouts across multiple sports.
She walked onto the court for her first match at the U.S. Open wearing a mask bearing the name Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician who was killed when police shot her in her own apartment in March.
Osaka then donned face coverings honoring Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd and Philando Castile.
In Saturday’s final she honored Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American boy who was shot dead by a white police officer in Cleveland, Ohio in 2014.
Osaka said she thought about wearing the mask for her trophy ceremony but was told not to don a face covering for the exchange.
During the tournament Osaka received video messages from Arbery’s father and Martin’s mother thanking her for her bringing worldwide attention to their stories.
She said Saturday that she would like to meet relatives of the victims.
“Definitely. I feel like for me I learn more through experiences. For me, I feel like sharing stories and hearing people’s experiences is very valuable,” she said.
Tennis pioneer Billie Jean King said the action put her in the pantheon of the greatest athlete activists.
“It has been more than 50 years since athletes like Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith and the Original 9 of women’s tennis all stood up and used their sport, their voices and their actions to change humanity,” she said.
“The baton has been passed and Naomi has accepted it.”
Osaka said that her boyfriend, the rapper Cordae, who supported her from the stands at the U.S. Open, had influenced her views about racial and social justice.
“I’ve read a lot into Haitian history. My dad always talks about that,” said Osaka.
“For me, my boyfriend’s really like into reading a lot, so he’s been passing me books.
“I try not to get most of my information from the news. I try to form my own opinion, sort of.”
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