“Well, what was the message that you got?” she replied. “I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”
Her answer, volleyed back at him reflexively, precise and a bit arch, revealed a sharply different woman from the one who had withered under excruciating boos at Arthur Ashe Stadium after her first US Open title.
As her star has grown, Osaka has described herself to interviewers as shy and quiet, though her older sister, Mari, likens her to the character Stewie Griffin, from the animated TV show The Family Guy, whose malevolent genius is subverted by the constraints of being a baby. That demeanour was sufficient as Osaka navigated the world as an effervescent upstart.
When it came to opening up about nearly any deeply felt topic, Osaka used to let the words kink up inside her like an unspooled garden hose. But in 2020, Osaka found her voice and the self-possession to speak up when and how she saw fit, a massive leap for a global superstar who once felt too self-conscious to exhort herself even on the court. With time to engage with civil rights protests because of the pandemic’s pause of tennis, Osaka found the space to unravel her thoughts to convey an urgent and unequivocal demand for change.
In doing so, she came to be as precise and efficient in her protest as she has been in her tennis, offering up her version of soft power: deploying bold activism shaped by her unique understanding of the world and her place in it.
In what she termed “a U-shaped” 2019, Osaka’s rawness and honesty conveyed the depths of her frustration over how much she struggled after her rapid-fire grand slam wins. After a 16-match win streak at grand slam events, she was upset at the 2019 French Open in her third match and lost in a first-round stunner at Wimbledon. After Wimbledon, she faced reporters who presented her with variations of the same question – what’s wrong with you?
“There’s answers to questions that you guys ask that I still haven’t figured out yet,” she curtly replied to one, during a news conference she left by telling a moderator, “I feel like I’m about to cry.”
It was a troublesome showing – her post-match interviews felt like eavesdropping on a doctor’s stethoscope. She offered only sadness and frustration, with no spin.
Of course, her tennis wasn’t tested much in the months that followed because the pandemic shut down the WTA Tour in mid-March along with the rest of major sports leagues. Osaka used the downtime to consider the world from her vantage point. “I was able to focus on things outside of tennis and live my life outside of tennis in a way I never have and likely never will again,” she said. “I was able to take more personal time, more time for self-reflection, more time to understand and witness the world around me.”
Without the tunnel vision of a tennis schedule, Osaka showed the effects of the psyche-scarring onslaught of violence against Black Americans. In the days after George Floyd was killed by the Minneapolis police in May, she flew with her boyfriend, the rapper Cordae Dunston to protests there and later wrote an opinion piece for Esquire challenging that society “take on systemic racism head-on, that the police protect us and don’t kill us.”
Though Osaka’s assertion of each part of her identity – Japanese, Haitian, raised for a time in the United States – has given her profitable endorsement lanes, she has often highlighted her Blackness when commentators minimise it.
The day before Osaka played her first match at the Western & Southern Open in August, Jacob Blake was shot in the back by the police in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
By her quarter-final match, renewed protests had reached American pro sports, with teams in the NBA, the WNBA and MLB opting to stop competing on August 26.
Osaka came off the court that day planning to withdraw from the tournament. No call with a players’ union, no team meeting. Stuart Duguid, her agent, asked her to hold off announcing for 10 minutes or so while he scrambled to give her sponsors and the tournament a heads-up. That done, she dropped a meticulously framed statement to her various social feeds that explained her stance.
Within minutes, the WTA’s chief executive, Steve Simon, called Duguid to salvage her participation. Simon, along with other tennis and tournament officials, eventually agreed to pause the tournament.
It was an unmistakable display of Osaka’s power within the sport, an authority that is still heavily predicated upon winning.
As she bounded into Ashe Stadium on September 1 for her opening match at the US Open, a plume of hair and a bulky headphones framed her mask bearing the name Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old medical worker who was killed in March during a raid of her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky.
By now we know how that tournament turned out, how Osaka rallied from down a set and a break to defeat Azarenka, and then the retort to Rinaldi. The triumph left her “completely exhausted – physically and mentally,” and she declined a daytime talk show blitz as an encore.
Instead, she wrapped herself the next day in what resembled a shortened version of a karabela dress, a traditional Haitian dress for celebrations, and a head wrap for her official champions portrait. Later, she and her family went to Haiti, her father’s homeland, to reconnect with the past, a trip that she called “an amazing and emotional experience to cherish.”
Now, two months removed from her victory and with the year coming to a close, Osaka still cannot give voice to the specifics of how her life, career and goals have changed. “I think that’s something that I won’t have a firm answer to for a while,” she said.
When she does, she’ll let us know.
The New York Times