IT appears recently crowned US Tennis Champion Naomi Osaka has embraced, albeit uncomfortably, her position and status as an advocate for social justice.

We are more used to the shy, introverted young woman who has social anxiety and awkwardness. Uncomfortable with the attention garnered following her wins in the 2018 US Open and the 2019 Australian Open.

But winning the 2020 US Open has seen a new found confidence.

Osaka has found her voice. And she has a lot to say.

Osaka withdrew from a match at the Southern and Western Open, following the police shooting of Jacob Blake. In May 2020, she had also protested following the death of George Floyd that sparked unrest in the US and globally.

More importantly, Osaka decided to make a symbolic stand against racism and police violence.

For the US Open, she prepared seven masks bearing the seven names of victims of police violence. One for each match reflecting her determination to at least make the final.

It was the name of Tamir Rice that was proudly and forcefully worn by Osaka, 22, in the final against Victoria Azarenka, 31. Rice was a 12 year old boy shot dead by a white policeman in 2014 holding a toy gun. Forceful, because it forced others to focus on a problem that has saturated the world in recent months.

The white letters standing against the black background the symbolic irony.

Osaka was asked to explain the message she wanted to send wearing the masks to those willing to listen.

Somewhat pointedly, she countered ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi with “Well, what was the message you got? That is more the question.”

“I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”

Ironic, given how much Osaka finds it difficult to do so. A reflection of just how much she is willing to extend herself beyond her usual, protective comfort zone.

The awkwardness a buffer against unwarranted attention and scrutiny. But her new found status as a world tennis champion and celebrity will surely strip away any protective layer as people want to know more about this young woman and her eccentric ways.

Osaka is no stranger to racial issues. She is of Japanese and Haitian heritage. Her mixed race forcing those in Japanese society to at least have the conversation around these issues. To make people start talking.

“The thing is, for me I felt like everything that I was doing off the court was sort of on the court at the same time too because I’m walking on to the court [wearing the mask] in that moment,” she said on ESPN.

“It made me stronger because I felt like I have more desire to win, because I want to show my names and I want people to talk about it more. It wasn’t that bad of a struggle,” she added.

She became the first woman in 26 years to come back from a set down to win a US Open final. It was a remarkable display of character, mental toughness and self-belief.

Make no mistake; there is a fierce, unrelenting toughness to Osaka. Resilience. Determination. Perhaps borne out of adversity that she had to deal with regarding her own racial discrimination growing up.

“I came here with a goal of playing in the final. A lot of people want to be in this final, so I can’t lose 6-1 6-0.”

“And I’ve never played against someone that beat me when I’m trying really, really hard.”

Osaka moved away from her family base in Florida to Los Angeles last year. An opportunity for some independence. She now has a high-profile boyfriend, rapper Cordae, who is credited as being influential in her activism.

“I sort of forced myself to grow up a little bit,” Osaka said somewhat poignantly.

“It’s a bit weird because also at the same time you feel homesick. We went driving through the streets yesterday and I was crying because I remembered everything my mum sacrificed when I was younger and she couldn’t even watch my matches.

“Of course it makes you grow up and hopefully it translates in my tennis.”

As well as her public image. Osaka was the brunt of criticism following the publication of Instagram photos depicting her in a bikini earlier this year.

“I just wanna say it’s creeping me out how many people are commenting @ me to maintain my ‘innocent image’ and ‘don’t try to be someone your not’,” Osaka said.

“You don’t know me, I’m 22, I wear swimsuits to the pool. Why do you feel like you can comment on what I can wear?”

Welcome to the real world, Naomi.


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