It’s only September but the year 2020 has drastically changed the world and the way we live in it.
The coronavirus pandemic, the subsequent lockdown, the rise of fundamentalism, and the increased youth activism has altered the very fabric of the society we live in.
Who doesn’t identify with the life-altering impact of this year?
It is no different then for Naomi Osaka.
Except that the 22-year-old is a global sports icon, the highest earning female athlete, a former world No 1 tennis player, a Black woman, a biracial child of Japanese and Haitian origin, and a three-time Grand Slam champion.
Except that Osaka’s character development has been in full public view for a player who has openly admitted to being shy.
Except that the change in Osaka has proved to be more consequential, not just for tennis but the world in general.
In the last few months, she decided to stop being shy, say what she is thinking and use her voice to speak up for social justice. And she won the US Open – the first Grand Slam of a pandemic-affected world – fighting from a set and a break down against a surging Victoria Azarenka.
Pressure, on and off the court, but the kind that brought her firmly back at the top of women’s tennis. Where she belongs.
Walking the tightrope between athlete and activist is not an easy task, but to do that as someone who has not enjoyed the spotlight while playing a Major is an even bigger challenge. Her anti-racism stand was both an added burden on her shoulder and a target on her back at the US Open. In some ways, the youngster had no choice but to win because of the message and the medium she chose.
And win she did.
An incredible rise
Here’s a brief synopsis of Osaka’s notable steps in the last few months:
- Flew down to attend a peaceful protest rally in Minneapolis in the wake of George Floyd’s death
- Wrote an op-ed about racism and Black Lives Matter for Esquire
- Joined the US Sports boycott by refusing to play her semi-final at the Western & Southern Open, which forced organizers to call off the entire day’s play
- Wore facemasks with different names of black victims of police brutality at the US Open, preparing seven with the aim to reach the final; and sported them all
- Spoke out on social media, urging other athletes to do more than token posts and answering critics who told her to “stick to sports”
- Gave an interview about how not talking her mind has caused her much pain and tweeting that she is done being shy
- Became the highest paid female athlete in the world, according to Forbes
Not bad, right?
It should be noted that she also worked very hard on her game with new coach Wim Fisette, as evidenced by the fightback to win her third Major in as many years.
And after the final, she said she had to bring out a head wrap for the occasion... a nod to her heritage. In another tweet she thanked her ancestors whose blood reminds her that she cannot lose.
These may be just posts on social media but they highlight the mindset Osaka is developing: as a biracial woman who had initially found it hard to gain universal acceptability.
To fully grasp and appreciate Osaka’s evolution – to use a word from her favourite Pokemon – a little background is necessary.
When Osaka won her first Grand Slam at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in the controversy-marred 2018 US Open final against Serena Williams, she was booed by some sections of the crowd for no fault of her own. A first Major at just 20 years of age came in tears after beating her idol and the tennis player her style was based on by her father. There was not a lot to say in that moment.
A few months before that, she had lifted her first WTA title at Indian Wells and given what she called “the worst acceptance speech of all times” as she froze when her name was called out to come and talk as the winner.
Two finals, two trophies, but two terrible trophy moments. It was physically tough for the younger Osaka to speak up.
Two years later, after another tough US Open final, here was a totally different, quietly steely Osaka who was so in command of herself that even falling on the ground to celebrate was done cautiously.
How did Osaka complete this turnaround? Adversity moulds character, it is said. And this particular fuel was available in plenty for over a year.
After becoming the world No 1 in early 2019 with back-to-back Majors wins in tenacious finals against Serena and Petra Kvitova, Osaka suffered a disturbing downward spiral. She split with her coach Sascha Bajin and failed to do well on the American hard-courts, clay or grass seasons.
As the defending champion at the US Open, she shared a touching moment with Coco Gauff after beating her, making the teenager join in for the traditional winner’s on-court interview. She acknowledged the work of her parents, who like Osaka and Williams’ father had coached the young Black player, and it showed tremendous depth of character and understanding of socio-cultural issues.
But in the next round, she lost in straight sets to Belinda Bencic and despite a brief rise at the end of the year, was knocked out of her Australian Open title defence this year in the third round by Gauff.
But just when it looked like her 2020 season would be no better, it all changed with the six-month shutdown of the sport. She had time to think about her platform and legacy and the rest, is well, ongoing history-making.
Women’s tennis has always had activist icons who have excelled both on and off court, from Billie Jean King to the Williams sisters, who have campaigned for gender equality, equal pay, boycotted tournaments due to racism and changed the face of the sport.
But what sets Osaka apart is the timing and context of her actions at this time.
Not only was this bold and public step a cause for extra pressure but it was also a risk, for her career and her brand. One misstep could have meant factions criticising her for mixing sports and politics, a dip in momentum again or potential loss of revenue. It would have been wrong, but it would have happened nonetheless.
But Osaka prevailed and reminded people that she is here to stay, both as an athlete and activist.
“All the people that were telling me to “keep politics out of sports”, (which it wasn’t political at all), really inspired me to win. You better believe I’m gonna try to be on your TV for as long as possible,” she said, hitting one final winner off the court.