Naomi Osaka has been the dominant storyline of the 2020 U.S. Open, both for on-court performances that mean she will be playing in Saturday’s final and for her vocal support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
Before each match, Osaka has worn a mask bearing the name of a different Black American in a powerful symbol of her support for the fight against racial injustice in the United States.
Osaka, who has a Japanese mother and Haitian father, may represent Japan but she lives in Los Angeles and has joined several BLM protests across the country this year.
Although her focus has been on racial injustice over the last few months, the 23-year-old has long been a symbol for change in Japan.
Osaka is one of the country’s most recognised personalities and has become the face of a changing Japan coming to terms with challenges to its self-image as a racially homogenous society.
Baye McNeil, a prominent Japan-based African-American author and activist, sees Osaka as the next in a line of great Black athlete activists such as boxer Muhammad Ali and sprinter Jesse Owens.
“Muhammad Ali… put his career on the line in order to protest things that he thought were unjust or just wrong. And I think Naomi is on that path,” McNeil told Reuters from Yokohama.
“She is joining a community that has a history, has a legacy, going all the way back beyond Jesse Owens. In fact, what she is doing is very in line with Jesse Owens. Not necessarily for her impact on America but on Japan.
“I kind of think of her as a Jesse Owens of Japan.”
CHANGING THE NARRATIVE
McNeil, who moved to Japan 16 years ago, believes Osaka and other biracial athletes like basketball player Rui Hachimura and Chicago Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish can be catalysts for change just by competing.
“It doesn’t even require them to say anything, you just look at them and say ‘Oh my God, this is a Black woman representing Japan,’” he said.
“This is something Japan has never faced before and I am not sure how exactly they are going to resolve this, or how they are going to modify the narrative, but some modification is required.”
Jaime Smith, who helped organise June’s BLM protest in Tokyo, thinks many Japanese people do not see Osaka’s activism as relating to their own country.
“They see it from the viewpoint that she is a Black American woman, even though she’s half Japanese, and she is speaking out about an American problem, so I still think there’s some wilful ignorance there,” Smith told Reuters.
“That’s … the kind of mindset we are trying to change.”
Smith, who moved from the U.S. to Japan three years ago, sees Osaka as the perfect person to push through this change.
“She is at a point where she is huge worldwide and people can’t help but listen to her,” she said.
“I think this is the perfect time to do what she is doing.”
Following her 2018 U.S. Open triumph, Osaka attracted a large number of sponsors, many of them big Japanese brands, and became the world’s highest paid female athlete, according to Forbes.
These sponsors have not always been supportive of Osaka’s campaigning against racial injustice, however.
A report in Japanese newspaper Mainichi on Friday cited unnamed sources at one of her sponsors as criticising her BLM stance, saying they would prefer her to concentrate on tennis.
If some in Japan are struggling to come to terms with Osaka’s activism, this was not apparent at Tokyo’s Godai tennis club on Saturday morning.
“With the face masks, I perceive a kind of determination that she is facing her matches with these thoughts,” said Chika Hyodo.
“I think she is trying to fulfil the role she was given as an athlete and I feel awesome about it. I support her.”
Osaka was a hot topic of conversation at the club as the younger members had their weekly lessons and there was no sign that her activism was having any impact on her popularity.
“She is a Japanese, strong female tennis player,” said 10-year-old Ai Uemura.
“I think it’s great that she entertains people.”
Azarenka to play Final
Victoria Azarenka stunned Serena Williams 1-6 6-3 6-3 in the semi-finals of the U.S. Open on Thursday, denying the American the chance of winning a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam singles title on home soil this year.
Azarenka will play Japan’s Naomi Osaka on Saturday in her third final at Flushing Meadows, having lost the previous two to Williams in 2012 and 2013.
Azarenka said her mental game had been crucial in beating the 38-year-old Williams, who needed a medical timeout to have her left ankle re-taped in the third set due to Achilles trouble.
“I have been working on finding a calm mind and keep the body going,” the Belarusian said in an on-court interview. “She dug me in a big hole in the first set. I needed to find energy to climb out of the hole and it wasn’t easy.”
Williams, who has been stuck on 23 Grand Slam titles since winning the 2017 Australian Open, said the defeat was “obviously disappointing”.
“At the same time … I did what I could today,” she added.
“I feel like other times I’ve been close and I could have done better. Today I felt like I gave a lot.”
Six-times U.S. Open champion Williams came out firing winners from all sides of the Arthur Ashe Stadium court while Azarenka struggled with her serve, committing four double faults in the first set and winning just six of 15 first-serve points.
She also had 10 unforced errors and appeared increasingly frustrated, with a mic catching her muttering a pair of expletives at herself before Williams took a 4-1 lead.
Williams wrapped up the opening set in little more than half an hour but Azarenka seized momentum in the second frame, breaking the third seed’s serve with a pair of backhand winners from the baseline to take a 3-2 lead.
Playing her first Grand Slam semi-final in seven years, Azarenka got the better of Williams in some explosive exchanges of power-hitting while her serve also saw major improvement.
The 31-year-old took the set to force a decider after winning nearly 75% of her first-serve points and committing just one unforced error.
The twice Australian Open champion kept up the pressure in the third set and looked to be in a deep meditative state as Williams had her ankle taped, not even reacting as an insect landed on the bridge of her nose as she waited to resume the match.
Azarenka then sealed her place in the final with an ace.