Just a few minutes before the 2020 US Open champion lifts up her sterling silver trophy and smiles at the cameras, she hears this question asked by reporter Tom Rinaldi: “Seven matches, seven masks, seven names. What was the message you wanted to send?”
“Well, what was the message that you got?” – responds Naomi Osaka, who throughout the entire tournament has been honouring victims of racial injustice. Before each of her seven matches, she entered the court wearing a mask with the name of one of the Black victims of police brutality in the USA.
Her masks included the names of: Breonna Taylor, 26, shot dead by police in her own apartment; Elijah McClain, 23, who died as a consequence of a violent encounter with police in Colorado; Ahmaud Arbery, 25, shot to death after being followed by armed white men; Trayvon Martin, a teenager killed by a civilian, whose death helped to set up Black Lives Matter movement; George Floyd, 42, who died in hospital after police officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes; Philando Castile, 32, shot by Minnesota police; and Tamir Rice, 12, killed by police while playing with a toy gun.
Osaka’s mask campaign was not the only moment when she spoke up about racial injustice. A week preceding the US Open, the 23-year-old was supposed to play the Western and Southern Open semi-final against Elise Mertens. The match was scheduled for Thursday 27 September 2020 – the day when many US Sports Leagues stopped the competition in protest of the shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake.
On Wednesday 26 September, Osaka resigned from further competition, tweeting “before I am an athlete, I am a black woman. And as a black woman I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis.” WTA and USTA asked Osaka if she would be willing to play her match on Friday instead. After a lengthy consultation with a player, organisers decided to postpone all the matches in the tournament until Friday.
Osaka, who has a Japanese mother and Haitian father, has made many powerful anti-racism statements, not only on the court but also on her social media. She said that she does not expect anything drastic to happen following her actions, but she believes that getting a conversation started in a majority white sport is already a step in the right direction.