After advancing to a semifinal with a straight-sets win Tuesday night, Osaka was surprised as video messages of thanks from the parents of two victims of racial violence were shown by ESPN during her post-match interview on the court.
“I just want to say thank you to Naomi Osaka for representing Trayvon Martin on your customized mask and also for Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor,” said Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s mother. “We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. . . . Continue to kick butt at the U.S. Open.”
Martin, an unarmed, Black 17-year-old, was walking alone in his Florida community, returning from a convenience store, when he was shot and killed in 2012 by George Zimmerman, a White man who was a member of the community’s watch group. Zimmerman later was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges and Martin’s case became a national story, with LeBron James and the Miami Heat protesting by donning the kind of hoodie Martin was wearing when he was shot and Barack Obama saying, “Trayvon Martin could have been me.”
There also was a message for Osaka from Marcus Arbery Sr., whose 25-year-old son, Ahmaud, was shot and killed Feb. 23 as he jogged in his neighborhood in Georgia. Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan all face charges in the shooting.
“Naomi, I just want to tell you thank you for the support of my family,” Arbery’s father said. “God bless you for what you’re doing and you’re supporting our family with my son. My family really, really appreciates that.”
Osaka, who also has worn masks with the names of Elijah McClain, Taylor, Arbery and Martin in the Open, was clearly moved by the messages.
“I feel like they’re so strong. I’m not sure what I would be able to do if I was in their position,” she said. “I feel like I’m a vessel at this point in order to spread awareness. It’s not going to dull the pain, but hopefully I can help with anything that they need.”
Osaka’s activism extends beyond her masks. She followed athletes from the NBA and other sports in choosing not to play or practice after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., last month. She chose not to play and the Western & Southern Open, a U.S. Open tuneup, was paused for a day. The 22-year-old, whose parents are from Japan and Haiti, has spoken thoughtfully about race, particularly as a woman of color in a sport dominated by White athletes.
“Before I am an athlete, I am a Black woman,” she wrote of her decision in the Western & Southern Open. “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. I don’t expect anything drastic to happen with me not playing, but if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport I consider that a step in the right direction.”
With tennis paused by the pandemic in the spring, Osaka marched in Minneapolis after Floyd’s death. In an essay for Esquire, she wrote of a personal “reset” that began after she won back-to-back Grand Slam tournaments, the 2018 U.S. Open and 2019 Australian Open.
“I honestly haven’t had the time to pause and reflect until now, which I think we can all relate to after the pandemic changed all of our lives overnight. In the past few months, I’ve reevaluated what’s actually important in my life. It’s a reset that perhaps I greatly needed,” she wrote. “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. So what I will say here, I never would have imagined writing two years ago, when I won the U.S. Open and my life changed overnight.”
She continued, saying that “being ‘not racist’ is not enough. We have to be anti-racist.” At 22, she’s only beginning to use her platform.
“It means so much to me that society evolves — that we take on systemic racism head-on, that the police protect us and don’t kill us. But I am proud, too, of the small part I have played in changing perceptions and opinions,” she wrote. “I love the thought of a biracial girl in a classroom in Japan glowing with pride when I win a Grand Slam. I really hope that the playground is a friendlier place for her now that she can point to a role model and be proud of who she is. And dream big.”
On Tuesday, Osaka advanced to a semifinal against Jennifer Brady, the U.S. player who has yet to lose a set at the Open, with the possibility of facing Serena Williams again in the final looming. Williams has used her platform to argue for racial and gender equality for years, and a Williams-Osaka would bring a fresh message to the final, with the families of victims of violence surely taking notice.
“For me, it’s a bit surreal,” Osaka said Tuesday. “It’s extremely touching that they would feel touched by what I’m doing. For me, I feel like what I’m doing is nothing. It’s a speck of what I could be doing.”
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Trayvon Martin had iced tea with him on the night of his death. He had a can of Arizona Watermelon Fruit Juice Cocktail. This version been updated.
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