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Naomi Osaka is poised to lead tennis on, off court

23 Comments
By HOWARD FENDRICH
Naomi Osaka, of Japan, holds up the championship trophy while posing for photographs at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York on Sunday. Photo: AP/Frank Franklin II

Naomi Osaka is at the top of tennis right now, poised to lead the way on the court -- and off it -- for years to come.

Still just 22, she already owns three Grand Slam titles after winning the U.S. Open. All were claimed in a span of the past seven major tournaments, thanks primarily to her big serve and forehand and an ability to think her way out of trouble.

Then there's this: Osaka is demonstrating a willingness to speak out about racial injustice, becoming her sport’s leading voice.

Osaka, whose father is Haitian and mother is Japanese, put a spotlight on the issue by declaring she would walk out of a tuneup tournament last month, then by wearing masks with names of Black victims of violence to her U.S. Open matches.

After coming back to beat Victoria Azarenka 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the final at Flushing Meadows on Saturday, Osaka drew a direct line between who she is as a player and who she is as a person — and how success in one realm can affect the other.

“For me, I felt like it made me stronger, because I felt like I have more desire to win,” Osaka said on ESPN, “because I want to show more names and I want people to talk about it more.”

In a way, Osaka’s emergence can be viewed as a fitting tribute to Billie Jean King and the rest of the Original 9, 1½ weeks before the 50th anniversary of their signing $1 contracts for a women-only tournament, paving the way for today's WTA tour and equal prize money at Grand Slam events.

It’s also a reminder of King's philosophy, expressed this way in an interview with The Associated Press this year: “I knew if I wasn’t No. 1 that nobody would listen.”

Osaka showed up for her first-round match at the U.S. Open wearing a black mask with white lettering spelling out the name of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman fatally shot in her apartment by police in Kentucky. Osaka explained she brought seven face coverings — one for each match if she reached the final.

“I’m aware that tennis is watched all over the world, and maybe there is someone that doesn’t know Breonna Taylor’s story. Maybe they’ll, like, Google it or something,” she said. “For me, (it’s about) just spreading awareness."

She added the name of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy killed by police in Ohio in 2014, on Saturday to the list of victims she honored: Elijah McClain, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Philando Castile.

Asked what her message was, Osaka turned the query around.

”‘What was the message that you got?’ is more the question,” she replied. “I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”

Osaka got the conversation going in tennis when she said she would withdraw from her semifinal at the Western & Southern Open -- a tournament moved from Ohio to New York ahead of the U.S. Open to form a two-event “controlled environment” to limit travel amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Tournament officials followed her lead and called off a day’s play entirely.

“This is like an extra motivation, as you know. It’s a very important topic for her,” said Osaka’s coach, Wim Fissette.

“It’s very important to have big personalities like Naomi to make a change, hopefully, one day. I think it’s a great thing that she does. For sure with wearing the masks, she wants to be role model," Fissette said. "But also, she knows that it has to go together with (being a) role model on court. So it’s a good combination. Role model off court; also great attitude on court. That goes together.”

Against Azarenka, Osaka hit six aces and 17 forehand winners. She won 15 of the 23 points that lasted at least nine strokes.

Most impressive, though, Osaka cast aside a terrible initial half-hour, realized she needed to be more aggressive — crowding the baseline to redirect shots more quickly, taking time away from Azarenka — and became the first woman in 26 years to win a U.S. Open final after dropping the first set.

After it ended, the last shot struck and the championship hers, Osaka calmly set down her racket on the sideline with a smile, walked back onto the court and eased herself down, laying on her back and glancing overhead.

“I was thinking about all the times I’ve watched the great players sort of collapse onto the ground and look up into the sky. I’ve always wanted to see what they saw,” Osaka said. “For me, it was really an incredible moment. I’m really glad I did it.”

She was thrilled she had earned the trophy. Tennis should be thrilled it has Osaka.


Howard Fendrich covers tennis for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/HowardFendrich or write to him at hfendrich@ap.org


More AP tennis: https://apnews.com/apf-Tennis and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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23 Comments

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Naomi Osaka: "Before I am an athlete I am a black woman."

But she gave up her American citizenship to play tennis as a Japanese, so is she a black woman or a Japanese woman?

-11 ( +2 / -13 )

The article mentions Billie Jean King. I met Ms. King a few times many years ago. She was very pleasant to be around. I hope she is well.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

SerranoToday  07:18 am JST

Naomi Osaka: "Before I am an athlete I am a black woman."

But she gave up her American citizenship to play tennis as a Japanese, so is she a black woman or a Japanese woman?

You are confusing nationality with ethnic background/identity. Two different things.

7 ( +9 / -2 )

Very proud of Naomi. While I admittedly have been hard on her in the past because I felt there was a lot of unnecessary distractions in her life that was hurting her tennis game, it looks like she has worked past that now.

Anytime a professional athlete uses their platform to highlight social injustice and racism in multiple countries (in Naomi's case, both in America AND Japan), it deserves to be applauded.

One day Naomi will be one of the greatest tennis players of all time. Japan is rightfully proud of her.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

is she a black woman or a Japanese woman?

I didn't know it was impossible to be both.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

Someone should ask her what she thinks about racial injustice in her own country.

-4 ( +2 / -6 )

oldman_13Today  08:30 am JST

Very proud of Naomi. While I admittedly have been hard on her in the past because I felt there was a lot of unnecessary distractions in her life that was hurting her tennis game, it looks like she has worked past that now.

Anytime a professional athlete uses their platform to highlight social injustice and racism in multiple countries (in Naomi's case, both in America AND Japan), it deserves to be applauded.

One day Naomi will be one of the greatest tennis players of all time. Japan is rightfully proud of her.

Germany has its Steffi, America has its Venus and now Japan has its Osaka. And she represents her nation proudly and at the same time she does have the right to address social injustice and racism issues. She's had to deal with such crap from both sides. Here in America she would've got some racist doo-doo even if she were a 100% Oriental Asian woman. She's one of a kind, it ain't like she's being a ungrateful lippy ingrate. She's breaking down social and racial barriers, and what's wrong with that?

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

is she a black woman or a Japanese woman?

I didn't know it was impossible to be both.

Technically it's not, though there are very few black women with Japanese citizenship.

But when she says "Before I am an athlete I am a black woman" she's putting her blackness before her Japaneseness.

Someone should ask her what she thinks about racial injustice in her own country.

Being as how she had dual citizenship but then renounced her U.S. citizenship to play tennis not as a black woman but as a Japanese woman, "her own country" would be Japan.

-6 ( +2 / -8 )

Naomi-chan is a proud Black Japanese woman. She has matured so much in the past few months. She has fought so hard for Justice for Blacks and minorities, and put the shocking killings by US police of Black children, women and men in the spotlight worldwide. She is taking the righteous path, ignoring the haters and the ignorant disparaging her and saying she is not a "real" Japanese.

Japan is rightfully proud of one of their own, Naomi-chan. And if she gets that Gold for Japan next year in Tokyo, it will be her crowning achievement, and bring more glory to Japan.

0 ( +5 / -5 )

If Tokyo 2021 does go ahead next year, watch all the racists and haters heads explode as Japan showcases her brilliant multicultural athletes - Naomi-chan, Cambridge, Hachimura, Abdul Brown among many many more.

Living proof that multiculturalism works when done properly, and minorities are not living in fear of being looked down on, and shot at, at worse.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

Technically it's not, though there are very few black women with Japanese citizenship.

Naomi Osaka is one such woman. It's pretty weird to dismiss her life as a technicality.

But when she says "Before I am an athlete I am a black woman" she's putting her blackness before her Japaneseness.

No, she isn't. She never mentioned her nationality: she said that her experiences as a black woman have informed her life more than her job as a tennis player.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Meanwhile, in other news, Japan's Shingo Kunieda celebrates after beating Alfie Hewett, of the United Kingdom, to win the wheelchair final of the U.S. Open tennis championships in New York on Sunday.

Tennis in a wheelchair, that guy deserves real respect. No politics, no BS and earns a tiny fraction (if that) of the money players of regular championship tennis earn. Everyone will have forgotten his name by the end of the week, what a crying shame that is.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Osaka is no Billie Jean King

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I'm more curious about Naomi's supposed American citizenship.

First, her father is reportedly Haitian nationality and not American nationality, according to every source I've seen. That means that Naomi does not have, and has never had, US citizenship.

News reports say that the family moved to the US to live with the father's parents. If her father had a permanent resident visa, Naomi would have been a dependent and only had Japanese citizenship from her mother or Haitian citizenship from her father. Haiti does not allow dual citizenship, so her father would have had to been a naturalized American and could not hold dual citizenship, but all reports are he is Haitian.

So, is she a legal immigrant to the US?

If she was an immigrant, did she naturalize? If she naturalized, she cannot hold dual citizenship and cannot be Japanese legally. You can only hold dual American citizenship if you are eligible for separate citizenship by descent (Jus sanguinis).

Her legal status is curious.

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

Naomi-chan, we are sooo proud of you、please keep going up

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

@Serrano, Osaka did not give up her American citizenship. Sorry to say you are so misinformed, if you really want to know more she doesn't live in Florida, she resides currently down the block from where I live, YES with her boyfriend in the Hollywood Hills!! She walks about everyday and yes the neighbors know who she is and no one bothers her. FACT!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

@Starpunk Osaka may have been born in Japan but too bad she wasn't accepted there until she got the hardware. She is very much AMERICAN as you can see, lifestyle and personal choices. The only difference is the sponsorship, it was a very wise move for her to wear the Japanese flag because she could get more sponsorship as America has tons of athletes, she is just one sharing both corners of the earth. Sooner she will get more now that she has won again. America embraces Osaka for who she is, Osaka embraces America for what she is thats FACT! What most Japanese are over looking his sooner or later the so called "HALFAs" will have a more powerful voice this is what Japan doesn't see coming as more will speak out in a country that is so uptight being a mono culture.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Osaka and other BLM protests are shining a light on racism in Japan, inspiring discussions about what it means to be Japanese and about the lives of the country’s multiracial population. Some are now questioning why people with mixed heritage are referred to as “hafu” (or half), suggesting they’re somehow less Japanese than others. She’s widely regarded not just as a Japanese celebrity but as a role model for her talent and social activism.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Being as how she had dual citizenship but then renounced her U.S. citizenship to play tennis not as a black woman but as a Japanese woman, "her own country" would be Japan.

She met her legal requirement of stating an intention to give up her citizenship. There is no requirement to follow through, and there has been no report of her actually following through. I'd be surprised if she wasn't still American.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

dctokyo2002Sep. 14  06:12 pm JST

Osaka is no Billie Jean King

No. Osaka is Osaka.

kalmcahl  Sooner she will get more now that she has won again. America embraces Osaka for who she is, Osaka embraces America for what she is thats FACT! What most Japanese are over looking his sooner or later the so called "HALFAs" will have a more powerful voice this is what Japan doesn't see coming as more will speak out in a country that is so uptight being a mono culture.

BION, white bigots in America claim that Japan is such a successful economic powerhouse because they think it's one race. I know better than that, it's BS. Japan is mostly Oriental Asian but there's also the indigenous Ainu and the smaller islands have a more Polynesian population. Racists are wrong about everything because they're stupid.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

peter neil:

When you naturalize as an American, you are forced to renounce any other citizenships.

What planet are you living on?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

@Strangeland she is a woman does her color of her skin make a difference?

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

she gave up her American citizenship to play tennis as a Japanese, so is she a black woman or a Japanese woman?

One can be both. She is.

But when she says "Before I am an athlete I am a black woman" she's putting her blackness before her Japaneseness.

No, she's putting her blackness before her being an athlete. Neither the article nor her comment says anything about being Japanese.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

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