Naomi Osaka is reeling in the accolades, adding the Associated Press’s Female Athlete of the Year award to the SI’s Sportsperson of 2020 Award she received earlier in December, both in acknowledgement of the 11-match winning streak that included lifting the US Open trophy for a second time, her third Grand Slam title, and for speaking out about racial injustice and police brutality.
It was difficult to be isolated from my family for large parts of the year, but that’s nothing compared to others. It was sad to watch and read the news of people suffering from COVID-19, and the economic and social effect on so many — losing jobs, mental health. It was such a tough year for so many people, and then watching the police injustices like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake (to name just a few) in the summer broke my heart. Naomi Osaka
With tennis shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, Osaka found herself with time to read and think and she emerged a more confident and outspoken person.
“It was difficult to be isolated from my family for large parts of the year, but that’s nothing compared to others,” Osaka wrote in an email interview. “It was sad to watch and read the news of people suffering from COVID-19, and the economic and social effect on so many — losing jobs, mental health.
“It was such a tough year for so many people, and then watching the police injustices like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake (to name just a few) in the summer broke my heart.
“I am proud of my US Open victory, but more so that I got people talking about the real issues.”
Osaka was selected after a vote by AP member sports editors and AP beat writers, collecting 18 of 35 first-place votes and a total of 71 points.
WNBA Finals MVP Breanna Stewart was next with 9 first-place votes and 60 points, followed by Sarah Fuller, the Vanderbilt soccer player who kicked for the school’s football team, with 1 first-place vote and 24 points.
LeBron James was announced Saturday as the AP Male Athlete of the Year.
Billie Jean King, a 12-time Grand Slam singles title winner and a pioneering advocate for decades, praised Osaka for positioning ‘herself as a leader not only in women’s tennis but in all of sports and a force for change in our society’.
“She successfully completed the difficult task of taking excellence in sports performance and using that platform to succeed outside of sports on a much bigger stage,” King told the AP.
“She ignited a conversation on social justice, the results of which were bigger than tennis, larger than sports, and in doing so raised the bar for all those who want to leverage the gifts and talents we have to make a difference in our world.”
Osaka, who ends the year ranked No 3 in the world, won 16 matches, with 3 losses during the coronavirus-truncated 2020 season during which the pro tours took about a five-month hiatus and Wimbledon was cancelled for the first time since 1945.
It was during a tuneup tournament in New York that Osaka, whose father is Haitian and mother is Japanese, declared she would not play her semi-final, joining athletes from the NBA and elsewhere in protesting the police shooting of Blake.
“There are clearly so many worthy issues,” she said. “This one especially resonated with me because of my own personal up-bringing; and also while the tennis tour was paused, I was able to watch and read news at length for the first time in my life.
“This summer in the US, tensions were high and reached boiling point. It was the right time for me to speak up.”
Taking her lead, that tournament shut down completely for a day.
“Her activism has shone a light on how we as individuals and sports leagues can collectively make an impact,” WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon said.
“Not only is she a phenomenal tennis player, but she also demonstrates how athletes have an opportunity to use their platform for something bigger than the game or themselves.
“Her actions are nothing short of inspiring and she is so very deserving of this recognition.”
During the US Open, Osaka brought attention to Black victims of violence by arriving for matches wearing face masks bearing the names of Floyd, Taylor, Tamir Rice, Elijah McClain, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery and Philando Castile.
“To be honest, I really didn’t stop to think about what others would think of my actions,” Osaka reflected.
“Other people’s opinions weren’t going to stop me from doing what I know in my heart was the right thing to do.
“The strong voices of Colin (Kaepernick) and LeBron were certainly positive influences for me and gave me strength in my own convictions.”
Turning to 2021, the 23-year-old Osaka listed these goals: “work hard, do better, speak up, be kind.”
Japan, where she was born, is slated to host the postponed Olympics next year.
“I am looking forward most to being with the athletes that had waited and trained for over 10 years, for celebrating a very hard year (2020), and having that happen in Japan makes it that much more special,” Osaka said.
“It’s a special and beautiful country filled with culture, history and beauty. I cannot be more excited.”