Time off from one's vocation can be a funny thing. Sitting with thoughts and considering one's place in the world, especially amidst a pandemic, sometimes leads to a proverbial fork in the road.

For many, 2020 has felt like a decade packed into a year. Naomi Osaka made it count. An abbreviated tournament schedule saw the 23-year-old grow at seeming triple-speed, in the best ways.


"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 told New York Times reporter Elena Bergeron for a feature story. "I was able to take more personal time, more time for self-reflection, more time to understand and witness the world around me."

That's not to say she didn't struggle with all the uncertainties as many others, famous or not, did. Surely she did. But she also located within herself a desire to shine a light outside herself, and that was—tragically—on others who have lost their lives but retained their voices.

Osaka's voice in 2020 was largely in print. It's not that she's "better on paper," as many of us given to words are. It's that she turned a mask mandate at the US Open into a billboard of the best kind.

Before that, she produced an essay for Esquire after protesting for peace and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in Minneapolis, in the wake of George Floyd's killing by police. Before turning 23 in October, Osaka had fine-tuned how to use myriad magazine-cover opportunities for furthering ideas on unity and celebration of differences.

Leave it to the hafu girl born in Japan, with Haitian heritage and an American upbringing. As Bergeron's Times piece reveals at length, that timid 20-year-old from 2018's Indian Wells winner's speech is gone.

When ESPN's Tom Rinaldi asked her courtside, after her US Open title-match victory, what her seven-masks-for-seven-deaths statements were to mean, Osaka's response was the surest winner she delivered in New York.


These players, sometimes doubled or tripled in age by their interviewers, answer so many questions over the course of a standard tennis season. They run the gamut from asinine to astute, punitive to perceptive. In that moment, in a nearly vacant stadium that typically seats over 23,000, Osaka gave perhaps her best-ever defense-to-offense performance.

Her best is yet to come.