The first time Naomi Osaka won the US Open title as a 20-year-old in 2018, awkwardness spilt all around as the crowd in the stands booed at her, showing her their displeasure about Serena Williams not winning the title. Osaka was reduced to tears, made to feel guilty when she had no reason to be apologetic.
Two years later, in 2020, as Osaka won her second title at Flushing Meadows, despite the emptiness of the stadium, support resonated overwhelmingly for the now 22-year-old. This time, there was no unpleasantness or discomfort and Osaka was made to feel like she belonged there as the winner: although she always had, in 2018 as much as in 2020.
Likewise, as tall as she stood that year, Osaka stood taller on the Arthur Ashe Stadium this year with her off-court activism against racial injustice and violence, and societal inequalities becoming one with her on-court storyline.
When she stepped on the court for her first-round match against her fellow player from Japan, Misaki Doi, Osaka wore a black with Breonna Taylor’s name written on it. When asked about her reasons for doing so, Osaka had said that she had seven masks made in total – one each for each round she expected to play.
She had also emphatically added, “It's quite sad that seven masks isn't enough for the amount of names, so hopefully I'll get to the finals so you can see all of them”. In hindsight, those words seem like they were a declaration of her commitment to making sure that she would get to wear each mask she had with her.
Naomi Osaka: Balancing activism with the profession
On the second Saturday, Osaka fulfilled her promise to those watching her play – and herself – by displaying all seven masks. And, the way she did so, also made sure that the memories associated with Osaka at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center would always be about how she tried – and succeeded – in making a difference, by taking a stand.
Looking back at her fortnight, it feels as though as Osaka’s performance was, at times, fuelled by her keenness to last the distance, to remain one of the two last women left in the draw, and beyond that the ultimate player who remained on the court.
This determination of Osaka could then be perceived in her relatively easy wins as it could be discerned in her tough victories – including in her final against Victoria Azarenka. The passivity of Osaka’s game in the opening set of the match was more of a consequence of Azarenka’s fierce ball hitting.
But the youngster played the latter two sets as though she had everything to lose – a loss whose significance, to her mind, transcended the tennis court and the match itself. “I feel like definitely there were a lot of hard times, especially being in the bubble.
You sort of overthink a lot of things. I think I just got through it because during quarantine I wanted to, you know, set myself up to possibly win this tournament. I felt like I just worked so hard, I wanted to give myself an opportunity.
I wanted more people to say, you know, more names, so..”. Osaka shared about her preparation for the event, in her post-match presser. For someone, who often talks about having – and showing – the right attitude on the court while playing, throughout this past fortnight, Osaka’s attitude has had been an inspiration.
And, it is because of how she has matured as a player between one US Open final and the other. “…I feel like I've definitely tried to mature. I wasn't really sure the process that I was going to have to take. But I feel like, you know, the lessons that I learned with life definitely developed me as a person more,” Osaka observed, after her win against Azarenka.
“…I think all in all it's the person that's very mentally strong. For me, it's one step forward because I always wanted to be that type of person. Yeah, I don't really think there can be a new Naomi or an old Naomi.
I only think I can improve on myself. So, every, let's say, failure that I have is something to learn from”. During the two weeks though, there was hardly anything by way of failures for Osaka to take note of, for self-improvement purposes.
However, she has held quite a mirror for the world – for society – to take a long gaze at their mistakes. If a soon-to-be 23-year-old can learn from her faults, the collective seniority of the world can, too, take lessons from their errors and to try and make it a better place to inhabit, while going about their professions, just like Naomi Osaka did in New York City.