Sports have never been “just sports.” Whether consciously recognized or not, spheres of athletic competition are also and will always be socially contested terrain — microcosms of our larger societies that reveal, reflect and even revolutionize issues extending beyond the court.
When Naomi Osaka walked into her first-round match at the 2020 US Open wearing a black face mask with the name Breonna Taylor printed across it, she became the latest in a long line of athletes to express and embrace this truth.
After winning that first match, Osaka revealed she had brought six other similar masks with her to New York, each one bearing the name of another Black person killed on account of racial violence in recent years: Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice.
Osaka planned to wear a new mask for each match, meaning that if she reached the final, all seven names would be given their due spotlight. Suddenly, her quest to win a third Grand Slam took on a resonance that transcended tennis.
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Osaka’s mere presence (and success) in one of America’s most historically white and economically privileged sports was its own statement, one that preceded her demonstration against racism.
The power of representation in the top levels of tennis has been illustrated over the past two decades by the increasing number of Black women in the WTA since the Williams sisters first set foot in Grand Slam arenas as teen phenoms. At last year’s US Open, 12 Black American women made the draw, making up 37.5 percent of the U.S. contingent and about 10 percent of the entire field. The fact that similar numbers have not been noticeable on the men’s side speaks to the specificity of the phrase, “If you can see it, you can be it.”
Osaka herself is a product of “the Venus and Serena effect,” or more specifically, the Richard Williams effect. When Osaka’s father, Leonard Francios, saw the success Richard Williams had in training his daughters to become champions in a sport he had never played, he decided to give it a try with his own two girls, Mari and Naomi. Osaka spent her childhood playing tennis all day with her dad and sister and doing homeschool in the evenings. Her mother, Tamaki Osaka, worked outside the home to support the family.
In 2018, her father’s vision came to fruition when Osaka won the US Open final against Serena Williams and was catapulted into tennis (and soon after, global) stardom. Since then, she’s been on a rocket ship of endorsement deals and publicity, winning three more Grand Slam trophies and becoming the highest-earning female athlete in the world. And she’s still just 23.
Osaka’s family has lived in the United States since she was 3 years old. Her father is from Haiti and her mother is from Japan, where both she and her sister were born.
Osaka officially gave up her U.S. citizenship in order to play for Japan at the Tokyo Olympics. As she told the New York Times in 2018, “I don’t necessarily feel like I’m American. I wouldn’t know what that feels like.” In the weeks leading up to the US Open last summer, she wrote in Esquire, “As long as I can remember, people have struggled to define me. I’ve never really fit into one description.”
At last year’s US Open, Osaka described herself as a “vessel” hoping to spread awareness, saying she chose the face masks to “make people start talking.” A reticent figure historically, Osaka made the loudest statement possible by funneling the attention thrust upon her talent into a national reflection on racial violence.
“It made me stronger,” she said at the time, “because I felt like I have more desire to win, because I want to show more names.”
"I feel like I'm a vessel at this point in order to spread awareness."Trayvon Martin's mother and Ahmaud Arbery's father thanked Naomi Osaka for representing their sons on the masks she's been wearing throughout the US Open. pic.twitter.com/0IHBU7pvx4— espnW (@espnW) September 9, 2020
"I feel like I'm a vessel at this point in order to spread awareness."Trayvon Martin's mother and Ahmaud Arbery's father thanked Naomi Osaka for representing their sons on the masks she's been wearing throughout the US Open. pic.twitter.com/0IHBU7pvx4
Perhaps her feelings of being American have changed in the years since then. Perhaps not. But one year ago this week, Osaka embodied a uniquely American tradition of activism, one grounded in free speech and fermented in a vision of transformative justice. In doing so, she quietly yet publicly built upon the legacies of Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, Venus and Serena Williams and many others in using her platform to call for a more just and equal world. At the same time, she challenged the notion that group identity is paramount, or as simple as checking a few boxes.
After entering Arthur Ashe Stadium for the 2020 US Open Final wearing her seventh mask with Tamir Rice printed across it, Osaka came back from a one-set, two-game deficit to overtake Victoria Azarenka for her second US Open title and third Grand Slam of her career. In the post-match interview, she was asked what message she’d been trying to send with her pre-game masks. Her immediate response is still relevant today:
“Well, what was the message that you got?”