Naomi Osaka was waiting for someone to speak up on racial injustice.
Then she spoke—and Osaka’s powerful words prompted a unified response from the game’s governing bodies.
Less than 48 hours after Osaka opted out of the Western & Southern Open semifinals in protest of social injustice, she returned to action—and reflected on reaction to her stand.
Self-described more “follower than leader”, Osaka said she’s surprised by the volume her voice carried through the sports world—and grateful so many of her peers and the game’s governing bodies stood with her.
“Honestly, I didn’t I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal,” Osaka told ESPN’s Chris McKendry after reaching her first final of the season with a 6-2, 7-6(5) win over Elise Mertens. “I thought I would withdraw and make a statement then I got a call from [WTA CEO] Steve Simon.
“He said he was fully supporting so I’m really grateful for that. Yeah.”
Osaka said the WTA supported her decision and agreed to push back play a day before she posted her statement on Twitter.
“After my quarters match I saw everything the NBA was doing. Then I felt like I also needed to raise my voice, too,” Osaka said. “So I called Stu, my agent, and we talked it over. Then we called the WTA, and they said that they would love to support and they were going to push play back a day. So I put out my statement.
“I feel like this is where everyone gets confused, because I didn’t say I was going to withdraw from the tournament. I just said I wasn’t going to play the next day. And today is Friday, and when I posted it was on Wednesday. I think that’s where there was a bit of confusion.
“I feel like it’s been kind of hectic, and I honestly haven’t been able to get that much sleep yesterday. So I’m glad I was able to win today.”
The former world No. 1 moved many with her tweet Wednesday night announcing she was withdrawing from the semifinals.
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) August 27, 2020
“Watching the continued genocide of black people at the hand of the police is honestly making me sick to my stomach,” Osaka posted on Twitter.
In a joint statement, the USTA, WTA and ATP supported Osaka’s stand and postponed the semifinals to 11 a.m. today.
In her early years on tour, Osaka was so shy she was averse to entering the player locker room feeling she didn’t quiet belong.
Now, the current and former pros ranging from Billie Jean King to Alize Cornet have praised the 22-year-old Japanese as a leader.
Osaka, the biracial daughter of a Haitian father and Japanese mom, said she spent some time during the Coronavirus shutdown of the sport thinking about how she could use her platform to raise awareness of racial inequity to the tennis bubble.
Clearly, her voice reverberates and commands respect from colleagues.
“Being more aware of the impact my voice can have I feel like this is a really big example,” Osaka said. “I just wanted to create awareness in the tennis bubble and I think I did my job, I guess.”
Playing for her sixth career title, Osaka will face a resurgent Victoria Azarenka in Saturday’s W&S Open clash of former world No. 1 Grand Slam champions. The Japanese wild card said while she feared her fellow semifinalists might be upset with her stand, she’s been encouraged by the strong support players have expressed.
“I haven’t really talked to the other players that much because we’re kind of in our own bubbles,” Osaka said. “I heard everyone ewas really supportive.
“My biggest fear was I don’t want them to blame me for the one-day break in case anyone’s schedule got messed up. So I was really scared. Everyone I talked to was really nice and supportive.”
Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve