Naomi Osaka’s status as the best women’s tennis player in the world was solidified with her Australian Open finals win in straight sets (6-4, 6-3) over Jennifer Brady early Saturday morning.
That’s four Grand Slams since winning her first at the 2018 US Open.
Osaka, in winning each of the four Grand Slam finals she’s played, is the real deal.
Furthermore, her growing confidence in what she stands for off the court was evident following her semifinal win over Serena Williams. A reporter asked Osaka, now the face of women’s tennis at the age of 23, for her thoughts about the woman, Seiko Hashimoto, emerging as the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee president after the previous president, Yoshiro Mori, was forced out for making sexist comments.
“What it means is that there’s a lot of things I think people used to accept; the things that used to be said. But you’re seeing a newer generation not tolerate a lot of things,” Osaka said. “Barriers are being broken down, especially for females. We’ve had to fight for so many things just to be equal. In a lot of things, we’re still not equal.”
For most, it was a throwaway comment during a media session when everyone was clamoring for details from the match where Osaka beat Williams in straight sets, denying the legend that she’s long idolized the opportunity to play for what could have been a record-tying 24th Grand Slam title.
For others, however, it was yet another sign of Osaka not only assuming the mantle as the most dominant player in women’s tennis from Williams, but emerging — much like Serena and her sister, Venus — as one of the most prominent and influential voices in women’s sports. She was acknowledged for that important voice immediately after her Australian Open win, with tournament chair Jayne Hrdlicka calling her off the court efforts over the past 12 months “truly inspiring.”
Osaka explained in an op-ed piece she wrote for Esquire last year that she discovered her voice in the midst of a world rocked by a pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests.
“In the past few months, I’ve re-evaluated what’s actually important in my life,” she wrote in the publication last July. “It’s a reset that perhaps I greatly needed. I asked myself, ‘If I couldn’t play tennis, what could I be doing to make a difference?’
“I decided it was time to speak up.”
Osaka spoke up with such power that, in December, she was named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year, honored alongside her male counterpart, LeBron James. For James, activism has long been a part of his DNA. For Osaka, who last year spoke loudly against the injustices experienced by Black people at the hands of police — Osaka flew to Minneapolis following the death of George Floyd to join marchers in protest — it’s a still developing part of her makeup that began nearly a decade ago with the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
“I remembered Trayvon’s death clearly,” Osaka wrote on a Facebook post about her reason for wearing a Trayvon Martin mask during last year’s U.S. Open. “I actually didn’t wear hoodies for years cause I wanted to decrease the odds of ‘looking suspicious.’ I know his death wasn’t the first but for me it was the one that opened my eyes to what was going on.”
When the Williams sisters made their professional debut in the 1990s on their way to two decades of dominance, the hope was that their success would inspire a future generation of young Black girls to one day dominate.
With all due respect to Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, Osaka has blossomed to be that girl.
The beauty of her emergence: Osaka’s done it as a biracial woman who embraces every bit of her culture.
Osaka proudly identifies as being Haitian (her father is from Haiti) and Japanese (her mother is from Japan, where Osaka was also born). Her life experiences of being raised in America, where her family moved when she was 3, has been that of a person of color.
So we can see Osaka wearing a Tupac hoodie one day and an outfit inspired by Japanese anime the next. We can appreciate Osaka concluding a tennis match wearing a mask honoring Philando Castile, and minutes later at her news conference fielding questions in Japanese.
That’s not code-switching. That’s Osaka being true to herself, and refreshingly authentic.
As she’s strengthened her voice over the last year, she’s left little doubt about just who she is.
“Before I am an athlete, I am a Black woman,” she said last August on social media as she announced her intent to take the day off from a tournament following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
That was a boss move by Osaka, a move made possible by the power plays of the Williams sisters, who brought a spotlight to perceived injustices in tennis during their long careers. That boss move revealed Osaka’s extraordinary influence on the sport. The tournament delayed play for a day, rather than risk losing its biggest attraction.
As Osaka entered the US Open weeks later, she revealed plans to wear masks bearing the names of different people who died at the hands of police and others in the United States. Winning the seven matches to claim her third Grand Slam gave Osaka the platform to amplify the names of Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice to an international audience.
Even Osaka has admitted that her tendency to delve into issues on social media might drive members of her team crazy.
Live view of my agent whenever I open Twitter. pic.twitter.com/QUqo0piRsC
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) June 8, 2020
But, clearly, she has demonstrated she is not going to play it safe. Nor is she getting ahead of herself.
In the aftermath of Osaka’s semifinal win in the Australian Open, a website posted an image of her being embraced by Williams with the line: “All love between two legends.”
You could almost imagine Osaka muttering the word “Ummm” before writing her response that completely captured her subdued demeanor:
Lol so I’m not even close to being a legend yet but I’ll try my best 🙏🏾 https://t.co/7c2rp5aUyQ
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) February 18, 2021
Osaka, on the court, has a long road to travel before she can arrive alongside Serena Williams as tennis royalty.
With four majors at the age of 23, she’s off to a good start.
But Osaka, in her willingness to shine a light on social issues off the court, has already earned a seat at the table with other players who strive to be more than an athlete.