Sport and politics don’t mix, they say. Well, that principle blew up spectacularly at the US Open. Not only did Naomi Osaka prove herself, once again, to be the best hard-court player in the world. She did so while wearing a series of customised, highly political face masks. Here was an athlete proving that she could handle two things at once.
What is more, the contrasting halves of Osaka’s tournament – the ball-striking and the activism – wound up complementing each other. Osaka’s cause was also her motivation, while her eventual triumph only amplified the message.
“It’s tough to be in a bubble for five weeks and keep yourself motivated and focused throughout,” Osaka’s agent Stuart Duguid told Telegraph Sport. “But as Billie Jean King says, no one listens to you unless you win. Naomi knew that, and it’s what kept her going.”
An introverted 23-year-old, Osaka had never before stepped outside the narrow confines of the tennis world. But it was only a matter of time. As she told Vogue in October: “I feel like this is something that was building up in me for a while.” In the same interview, she spoke of her memories of the racially charged killing of Trayvon Martin, which had unfolded in her home state of Florida when she was 14.
The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter had first emerged in 2013, when Martin’s killer George Zimmerman was acquitted on all charges. It reached a new audience after George Floyd died during an arrest in May this year. Then, in late summer, the sporting world stepped in. On Aug 26, after another police shooting in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Bucks started a domino effect among American sports franchises by boycotting their NBA match in protest.
Osaka had just come off court when she heard, having won her quarter-final at the Western & Southern Open. In an often self-absorbed sport, which rarely acknowledges the outside world, she was about to make an eye-catching, courageous and inspirational decision.
“I was watching the NBA situation unfold,” Duguid said. “I said to my wife, ‘Naomi is gonna call at any moment’. I texted Naomi and said ‘You seen this stuff?’ She replied ‘Yeah I was gonna call you. I am gonna pull out.’”
Duguid had expected Osaka’s semi-final opponent, Elise Mertens, to receive a walkover. “Naomi didn’t want to inconvenience anyone,” he said. But events took an unexpected turn when he contacted the WTA tour. Its chief executive, Steve Simon, asked if Osaka would agree to come back and play a day later instead.
“Naomi and I discussed the pros and cons,” Duguid explained, “and we decided that she would be adding another 24 hours – at least – to the news cycle around her protest. Given that the idea was to raise awareness around the cause, this seemed worthwhile.”
It was not just Osaka’s match that was held up. Both men’s and women’s tours agreed to cancel Thursday’s play in support of BLM. Here was a rare and welcome example of tennis working together. Even if one of the other remaining players, irate at the loss of a day’s rest before the US Open, was said to have barked at tour officials: “The next time I need a day off I’ll just say that I’m protesting five people being killed in —— [that player’s home country].”
Osaka’s coach Wim Fissette was not convinced, at first, about the wisdom of her decision. “We felt that was a huge amount of stress on her,” he said. “She made the big statement, she was reading reactions, and some people were negative. Then, when she played the semi-final, she got injured. It’s a fact that a higher stress level leads to more chance of injury.”
At this stage, Fissette was a relatively new addition to Osaka’s team. He had joined at the start of the season, and then seen her crumble unexpectedly in their first big tournament together – the Australian Open, where her title defence ended in the third round at the hands of Coco Gauff.
It was a mental aberration from Osaka, who admitted: “I don’t like losing to people that are younger than me.” But rather than seeing this as a setback, Fissette was able to turn the defeat to his advantage. Two weeks later, he and Osaka found themselves in Cartagena, Spain, where she was representing Japan in a Fed Cup qualifying match.
“She really opened up,” Fissette recalled. “We spoke about what happened, how she felt before the Gauff match. It was a big turning point this year. It’s true that a loss can be a big learning experience, but how many people really go deep and analyse what happened? That’s what Naomi did in Spain and that’s why she was able to grow as a result.”
Cartagena turned out to be an emotional spring clean for Osaka, even if the Japanese team were trounced. In any other season, she might have returned to the United States with enough vim to sweep through the “Sunshine Double” of Indian Wells and Miami. But both events were cancelled by the pandemic.
It was almost six months before the carousel finally began to spin once more, as the world’s best players gathered at the Billie Jean King Tennis Centre in New York. Despite a rusty start, Osaka was able to scrap through her first three matches of the Western & Southern Open (which had been shifted from its usual base in Cincinnati). She even rose above the manifold distractions to beat Mertens in the rescheduled semi-final on Friday. The downside was the injury that Fissette mentioned above: a tweaked hamstring that forced her to withdraw from Saturday’s final against Victoria Azarenka.
By Tuesday, however she was back on the match court – this time for the opening round of the US Open – and sporting the first of seven face masks emblazoned with the names of victims of police brutality. The seven were Breonna Taylor, Elijah McLain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice.
In the view of Duguid, Osaka’s stance redoubled the pressure on her to perform. “She went into every match – including the final – knowing what would be said if she lost. The critics would claim that she had been distracted, that she should stick to tennis. The only way to silence the haters and the naysayers was to win the tournament.”
In the early stages, Fissette feared for Osaka’s hamstring. But he is a phlegmatic character as well as a seasoned coach, who had already won majors with both Kim Clijsters and Angelique Kerber. He fell back on the same practice-free strategy that he had used with Clijsters on her way to the 2009 US Open.
“Naomi was in pain,” Fissette said. “So, the days when she didn’t have a match, she didn’t play at all. We did recovery sessions, light work in the gym, controlling the injury. I have experienced this before. Some players don’t need that practice on the off days. It keeps them fresher mentally. I have done that with Kim.”
Gathering momentum with each win, Osaka found that she could cover the court with her usual explosivity, despite the discomfort from her gammy leg. At this point, Fissette realised that something magical might be happening. Her political activism was dovetailing with her sporting ambitions.
“I was surprised to see the face mask with the first name on at the US Open,” said Fissette “I didn’t know anything about it. But I think when she does a lot of things off court it helps her, because she is not thinking about tennis too much. Otherwise she is overthinking. In that way, she is different to other players.”
Duguid agrees. “When she came off court after her first win, Naomi told the press that she had made seven masks. Some people thought that was a bit presumptuous and overconfident. In fact, it was very well thought out and executed. Her masks gave her a greater purpose.”
In the final, which once again featured Azarenka, Osaka’s sense of destiny was tested to the full. She was barely more than a spectator in the opening set, which Azarenka seized in 24 minutes of near perfection. But when Azarenka – then leading 6-1, 2-0 – faltered momentarily with a poor service game, Osaka was ready to step in. Lifting her own pace and intensity without aiming too close to the lines, she set off on a tear of her own, winning 12 of the last 16 games.
There were plenty of highlights, including one whipped forehand passing shot that had the commentators laughing in disbelief. But the highlight of the evening came from the on-court ceremony. When master-of-ceremonies Tom Rinaldi asked Osaka what message she had hoped to put across through her masks, she fixed him with a hard stare, and replied: “What was the message that you got, is more the question.”
Her answer was heartfelt, spontaneous and perfectly judged, like everything else in this story. What a win. And, more importantly, what a woman.