Naomi Osaka: The people’s champion
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By Mark Keohane
CAPE TOWN - THE conversation in women’s tennis has dramatically and emphatically shifted. Serena Williams, still full of pomp and panache as she steps towards the door of the 40s club, is on her way out and Naomi Osaka has very much stepped onto a stage that for nearly two decades belonged to Williams.
Osaka, born to a Japanese mother and Haitian-American father, has lived in the US since the age of three, but chose Japan as the flag she would carry throughout her professional tennis career.
And it’s been a career with a start unrivalled in the history of tennis.
Osaka, 23, has won four Grand Slams among her seven career titles. She has beaten Williams in straight sets on both occasions they played in Grand Slams.
Her most celebrated win was the first one, when she beat Williams in the 2018 US Open final.
Osaka was in tears after the final as the partisan home crowd jeered her victory. Williams admonished the crowd and applauded the quality of her younger opponent’s win.
It was a similar situation earlier this month when Osaka ended Williams’s march in Australia towards a 24th Grand Slam title.
However, this time there were no jeers; only cheers.
Osaka, in the past three years, has won over a global audience with the quality of her tennis and her personality, with her voice unapologetically vocal about Black Lives Matter.
Osaka, at the 2019 US Open, arrived in New York with seven masks. Each had the name of a black victim of racist violence or police brutality. The names were: Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castle and Tamir Rice.
To win the tournament, she’d have to play seven matches. Each match was an occasion to honour one of the victims, to tell their story and to create awareness.
“It won’t dull the pain for their families but it will get the conversation going and get people talking,” said Osaka.
you know the vibes 🏆💜💛 pic.twitter.com/M9RpggYXkn— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) February 21, 2021
When asked, in the on-court interview post winning the final, what message she wanted to send with the masks, she was visibly agitated in her response: “What was the message that you got, is more the question.”
She reiterated that she wanted to get people talking.
Subsequently, people haven’t stopped talking about her ability to effect social change and about her influence on the tennis court.
Commercially, there hasn’t been a female athlete who has generated as much in the past 12 months.
Forbes magazine ranked her eighth among all athletes in earnings and endorsements, and the leading female in a list dominated by men.
Osaka, who will be one of the biggest faces and voices at this year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, has said that she sees herself as a vessel in spreading awareness around Black Lives Matter.
She has promised not to stop talking about social injustice and she also won’t stop winning.
She is the first player in the game’s history to play in four Grand Slam finals and win every time.
The biggest names in the sport, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf and (Serena) Williams, all finished as runners-up at least once before they reached four titles.
When Osaka beat Wiliams in the 2018 US Open final, she told the crowd: “I know that everyone was cheering for her (Williams) and I am sorry it had to end like this. Thank you for taking the time to watch.”
It was the last time she would apologise for winning a match and a tournament.
It was the last time she would publicly apologise for being that good and it was also the last time she would feel compelled to apologise for being herself.