Naomi Osaka’s battle to unmask racism to go on


“Well, what was the message that you got? (That) was more the question,” Osaka said on court when asked at the trophy presentation ceremony what she wanted to convey by wearing seven masks. “I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”

The world’s highest-paid female athlete, born in Japan and brought up in the US, used her popularity around the world and one of the biggest sporting stages to highlight racial injustice. At the start of the tournament last week, Osaka spoke about her intention to wear seven different masks as she bid to reach the final with each mask bearing the name of a Black person killed in the US due to racial injustice and police brutality.

Osaka walked out for her first-round match wearing a mask with the name of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old woman shot dead in her apartment by police in Louisville in March, on it. Her next five matches highlighted the names of Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd and Philando Castile, all killed due to similar excesses. In the final on Saturday, Osaka’s mask had the name of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy shot by a white police officer in Cleveland while playing with a toy gun in a playground in 2014.

The masks have drawn the attention of people worldwide, especially among the millions of her followers on social media, while Osaka remained in the US Open bio-bubble. “For me, I feel like the more retweets it gets—that’s so lame—but the more people talk about it,” she said.

Osaka’s activism around Black Lives Matter, which also found support with the US Open organisers putting up banners of it on the main courts, hasn’t been a distraction to her tennis. On the contrary, it drove her to fulfill her promise of showing all the seven masks by reaching the final.

“It’s definitely helping her and giving her even more energy,” Wim Fissette, Osaka’s coach, was quoted as saying by the US Open website. “It’s very important to have big personalities like Naomi to make a change, hopefully, one day. It’s a great thing that she does. For sure, with wearing the masks, she wants to be a role model, but she also knows it has to go together with the role model on court. It’s a good combination.”

It isn’t merely on the Grand Slam stage that Osaka has taken up the cause. A few days before the US Open, she pulled out of the Western & Southern Open semi-final to join the protests with other American sporting leagues after the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by police in Wisconsin. The tournament organisers were forced to put off all the semi-finals by a day. Osaka won her semi-finals but pulled out of the final against Victoria Azarenka due to a hamstring injury.

Osaka said in the press conference on Saturday that she wanted to wear her mask even at the trophy presentation ceremony but “they said not to wear a mask”. She said she would love to meet the families—some have sent her appreciation messages—of the people whose stories she has highlighted.

“I feel like I learn more through experiences. Everyone sort of thinks they know; or I actually don’t want to know how they’re feeling or how they felt during the process. For me, I feel like sharing stories and hearing people’s experiences is very valuable.”

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