Tennis players are used to having all eyes on them. The sport’s individualistic nature guarantees that audiences will place players under a microscope, analyzing their every move.
Naomi Osaka, a Haitian-Japanese Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) player, is no exception to this feeling. Over the course of two tournaments, fans have taken notice of Osaka’s actions on and off the court as the now two-time U.S. Open champion has been drawing attention to racial inequality and teaching everyone a valuable lesson about using your voice, no matter how big.
Osaka first made headlines Aug. 26 when she announced she would be withdrawing from her semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In her statement, Osaka said, “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.”
Following her statement, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and WTA consulted with Osaka and agreed to postpone the tournament’s men’s and women’s semifinal matches for a day. Osaka rejoined as she felt the postponement brought more attention to the Black Lives Matter Movement, but her refusal to play showed that she was finding and using her voice.
Osaka won her semifinal match, but a hamstring injury forced her to pull out of the championship. Osaka’s activism shifted as she set her eyes on the next tournament, the U.S. Open. This time, she wore masks with the names of victims of police brutality. By the end of the tournament, Osaka had donned seven masks displaying the names of Ahmaud Arbery, Philando Castile, George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Elijah McClain, Tamir Rice, and Breonna Taylor.
During a Sept. 8 post-match interview, Osaka was nearly moved to tears as ESPN showed a video message from Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, and Marcus Arbery Sr., the father of Ahmaud Arbery, in which both parents thanked Osaka for speaking up and raising awareness for the lives lost to police brutality.
In her post-championship match interview, Osaka said that being in a bubble for the U.S. Open meant she could only see what was happening on social media. However, she was hopeful that these digital interactions were generating conversations in the real world.
Osaka’s actions showed the importance of using our voices in communities where we are traditionally underrepresented. Despite its international reach, tennis is still an overwhelmingly white sport. Unlike other professional sports leagues, most tennis players are not going to feel compelled to speak on an issue that hasn’t affected them or someone in their immediate circle. Every time Osaka walked through the tunnel, she exposed players and fans at home to names and issues that otherwise may have been ignored.
Stands against racial and social inequality do not always have to be grand gestures, as every contribution counts. It is nerve-wracking to put yourself out there in spaces where you are already seen as an outsider, but it is even braver to act as a catalyst for change.
Whether your social justice actions involve joining protests, donating to funds, or having difficult conversations with others, you are helping bend the arc of change. While the process is gradual, it is well worth it and much needed. In times where you feel like your actions are insignificant, I ask you to think of Osaka and remember that you can have more impact than you ever thought possible. It is all just a matter of using your voice.