Naomi Osaka is big news these days, recently receiving the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of 2020 Award and now adorning the cover of January’s edition of Vogue.
I used to think that everything depended on the game, and now I sort of understand that you have to find balance. I want to become knowledgeable, to have a vast understanding of things, or even lots of tiny things that amount to one big thing. I want to be a nice person to everyone I meet. Naomi Osaka
The three-time Grand Slam champion, who was unveiled as the world’s highest-paid female athlete in May, continues to break new ground after accomplishing her two personal missions in New York in winning the US Open for a second time and getting people to start talking.
Osaka arrived in New York with 7 different masks, each one bearing the name of a black person whose death had been cited in country-wide protests for racial injustice and it is for her bravery, as well as her exceptional play, that the 23-year old has been named the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year, alongside Lebron James, Breanna Stewart, Patrick Mahomes and Laurent Tardiff.
When Tom Rinaldi of the Tennis Channel in the US asked Osaka what message she was trying to convey, she responded simply: “What was the message that you got?”
The Japanese is the 5th tennis player to win the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year award since 1954.
Her statements and support of racial justice and human rights, backed up her efforts with a stunning run to the US Open title, provided her with the perfect platform to demonstrate leadership on the social justice front.
With America and the world reeling in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the growing protests that followed, Osaka drew attention to the cause when she wore a different mask during each of her seven matches at the 2020 US Open, each adorned with the name of a black person who had been victimised by violence.
By wearing those 7 masks, she made an extremely powerful statement, and every time she walked out to play people were talking about which name was going to be on the mask – Breonna Taylor. Elijah McClain. Ahmaud Arbery. Trayvon Martin. George Floyd. Philando Castile. Tamir Rice.
“I just want to spread awareness,” was what Osaka told the press after her first round in New York. “I’m aware that tennis is watched all over the world, and maybe there is someone that doesn’t know Breonna Taylor’s story.
“Maybe they’ll like Google it or something. For me, just spreading awareness. I feel like the more people know the story, then the more interesting or interested they’ll become in it.”
Osaka is part of a five-person group that received this year’s award, joining Patrick Mahomes, quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs, Lebron James of the Los Angeles Lakers, WNBA star Breanna Stewart and NFL player Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, also of the Kansas City Chiefs.
“Our Sportsperson of the Year award goes to five men and women who in 2020 were champions in every sense of the word: champions on the field, champions for others off it,” the magazine said.
A reluctant voice at first, Osaka has stepped into her role as an agent of enlightenment and change among her tennis peers.
Osaka courageously refused to separate her humanity from her athleticism and shook the tennis world when she helped force a shutdown during the Western & Southern Open this summer in New York.
Weeks later she would return to the court, spurred by her passion for the cause, as the families of the 7 people she brought to the attention of the public cheered her efforts and thanked her, tears in their eyes as they witnessed their loved ones celebrated as more than just names.
With Osaka’s help they have become a meaningful part of a movement that has more momentum than it had before.
“She brought so much attention to their stories,” wrote Martina Navratilova, in an op-ed for SI. “Naomi’s not someone you can dismiss as just a liberal whatever.
“This wasn’t political. She was humanising the enormous problem of police violence against Black people in America. This was about fairness. This was about human rights.”
Now she is ending 2020 by becoming a Vogue cover girl, one of 4 cover stars gracing the magazine’s January issue, and is being lauded not just for her athletic achievements but also her political activism.
During the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, Osaka used her platform to amplify calls for racial and social justice.
Osaka covers one of Vogue’s four January 2021 covers, joining Frances McDormand as the second cover star, photographed by Annie Leibovitz and wearing a Louis Vuitton dress with loose, natural curls styled by Lacy Redway.
In the accompanying interview with Rob Haskell, the once shy, naive, timid, innocent, mild-mannered, reticent comes across with bone-dry wit and sometimes jarring candour.
“That shy label has stuck with me through the ups and downs of my career,” she admits “But I think people who have watched me grow would say that I navigate situations better, that I’m better able to express myself.”
Although she has lived in the United States ever since, Osaka represents Japan in tennis (a decision her parents made for her years ago) and will compete on the Japanese team at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
“I think I confuse people,” she says, “because some people label me, and they expect me to stick to that label.
“Since I represent Japan, some people just expect me to be quiet and maybe only speak about Japanese topics.
“I consider myself Japanese-Haitian-American. I always grew up with a little bit more Japanese heritage and culture, but I’m Black, and I live in America, and I personally didn’t think it was too far-fetched when I started talking about things that were happening here.
“There are things going on here that really scare me.”
Fashion enthrals her and the first family trip to Tokyo was a revelation.
“We went to Harajuku and saw how everyone was dressing there,” she recalls. “I thought it was very unfair.
“Living in Florida, everyone would just wear jeans and T-shirts, and in Japan people were wearing tutus. It was so expressive.
“My style really depends on what I see. I went to Haiti recently, so I’m really into bright colours right now, flowy skirts and ruffles.
“I don’t have a plan when I wake up, but I would hope that at this point I know what meshes together and what doesn’t.”
Osaka moved to Los Angeles two years ago, mainly because it was difficult to take full advantage of the business opportunities coming her way from her family’s home in Boca Raton.
“I’m a bit of a loner, but not by choice,” she adds. “I would like more friends, but I’m not forcing it
“I don’t like to go to parties, because I’m not a good dancer, and they’re loud, and you sort of shout at a person to talk to them. I’m not that great at small talk.
“Mainly I’m a homebody, and my boyfriend [the rapper Cordae] records all the time, but he’s an even bigger homebody than me.
“On the court is completely different,” she goes on. “I love playing at Arthur Ashe because it’s the biggest stadium, and you feel the rumble of the crowd.
“You kind of feel like a gladiator because it’s super-big and there are so many people watching your match.
“But off the court, if I was ever thrown into a situation where I had to speak in front of 100 people, I feel like I would start shaking.”
When she packed her 7 black masks, each emblazoned with the name of a Black American victim of violence, and with no live audience at the US Open, Osaka used the power of TV to broadcast those names across the globe
“I was just thinking that I had this opportunity to raise awareness,” she explains. “Tennis is watched all around the world, so people who might not know these names can google them and learn their stories.
“That was a big motivator for me, and I think it helped me win the tournament.”
Her sights are set no further than the Tokyo games, where she has the opportunity to bring home the first tennis gold medal in Japanese history.
“I used to think that everything depended on the game, and now I sort of understand that you have to find balance,” she says. “I want to become knowledgeable, to have a vast understanding of things, or even lots of tiny things that amount to one big thing.
“I want to be a nice person to everyone I meet.
“This is putting it in video-game terms, but I think the me right now is sort of at the level 50 of tennis, and everything else in my life is at level five or six. I want to even out my levels.”
To read the full interview, click HERE (https://www.vogue.com/article/naomi-osaka-cover-january-2021).
Osaka, who was photographed by Annie Leibovitz, the American portrait photographer, joins Black female athletes like Simone Biles and Serena Williams as a Vogue cover star.