Women’s professional tennis has had an activist side to it since at least the 1960s. Long before Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in 1973 in front of a television audience of 90 million, she was a vocal advocate for equal rights and equal pay for women. Other players have carried on this work for different causes, and now three-time majors champion Naomi Osaka is the newest player on the hot seat.
Osaka, whose father is Haitian and mother is Japanese, lives and trains in the U.S. She has been a vocal advocate of causes like Black Lives Matter and went so far as to wear the names of different African-Americans killed by police on her face masks – one for each of the seven matches in her 2020 U.S. Open Championship.
Tennis typically celebrates tradition over innovation, and the wheels of change turn slowly for many of the sport’s fans. While the NBA and NFL players have pushed their leagues to embrace social justice this year, it appears that some tennis fans still cling to the now-dated idea that players should stick to sports. Some even blame Osaka for the lower ratings of the 2020 tournament, which did not have the star power of Federer, Nadal and a DQ’d Djokovic.
Osaka has now doubled down, claiming that the criticism of her was extra motivation to win the tournament. She has also been clear that George Floyd and others’ killings were a human rights issue and not a political issue. In defending herself, she rightly pointed out that critics who have other jobs outside of tennis feel they have the right to voice their opinion of how she is ruining tennis, so why can’t she express her views on these crucial issues?
Osaka has arrived
Osaka’s game has been bigtime since before she first won the open at age 18, defeating Serena Williams in 2018. Then she cried during the post-match ceremony because Williams drew penalties for rules violation, which prompted the crowd to boo the winner during her moment of glory. That was then. She is now the highest-paid woman in sport over the last year, and with increasing confidence she no longer wavers under pressure. Seemingly proving the point with her actions, she returned from a set down to win the tournament, refusing to crumble from the pressure on the court or outside the empty stadium.