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For a second US Open, Naomi Osaka shows she wins for more than herself
The three-time major champion is already mentally strong, and, step by step, she may change how we think of what tennis players and athletes can do with their lives—and their platforms.
Published Sep 13, 2020
“Everything I was doing off the court, was sort of on the court, too,” Naomi Osaka said when she visited the ESPN studio after winning her third Grand Slam title at the US Open on Saturday.
She had been asked whether it was difficult for her to balance her recent public support for the Black Lives Matter movement with her life as a professional tennis player. During the tournament, it had been satisfying to imagine that those two very different parts of her life were connected; that the masks she wore before each match, memorializing seven African-American victims of shootings by police or white civilians, really did inspire her to hit her serve and forehand better. But was there actually a link between them? According to Osaka, the answer was yes.
“I’m walking on the court in that moment,” she said of wearing the masks. “It made me stronger, because I had more desire to win, because I want to show more names, and I want people to talk about it more.”
Tennis is a selfish game, we’re told. You win matches and you lose matches the same way: alone. At the last two Opens, Osaka has shown that this doesn’t have to be the case.
In 2019, after beating Coco Gauff in a night match, she asked the teenager to stay and do the post-match interview with her. Osaka said she hated going back to the locker room by herself after a defeat, and she wanted to spare Gauff that painful experience.
This year, Osaka walked on court carrying the memory of someone who had been lost with her. The seventh and final name was that of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was shot and killed by a police officer in Cleveland six years ago. The desire to remind the world of another Black person’s life, and how it was taken, gave Osaka a greater sense of purpose each time she played.
“I wanted more people to say more names,” she said.
Some players might have crumbled under the weight of those kind of self-imposed expectations. And Osaka had her struggles during this fortnight. But she was always able to settle herself and bring her mind back to the task at hand. For her, that means forgetting about the result, and concentrating on first having the right attitude.
“When I think about winning too much, I go out of myself,” Osaka said. “For me, the key is to stay calm.”
“The quarantine definitely gave me a chance to think a lot about things, what I want to accomplish, what I want people to remember me by,” she said. “For me, I came into this tournament, or these two tournaments, with that mindset. I think it definitely helped me out.”
In her three-set wins over Misaki Doi in the first round, Marta Kostyuk in the third round, and Jen Brady in the semifinals, Osaka briefly lost her cool and “behaved terribly,” as she put it, but she never beat herself up emotionally. The same pattern held in the final, against Victoria Azarenka. Osaka lost the first set 6-1, and was a point away from going down 0-3 in the second. The match had all the makings of an historic blowout. Osaka slammed her racquet to the court once, but again she managed to return to basics: She was determined not to lose in under an hour.
“I wasn’t thinking about winning after a certain while,” Osaka said. “I thought, ‘I came here with a goal, I’m playing in the final, a lot of people want to be in this final, so I can’t lose 6-1, 6-0.’”
The turnaround began at 0-2 in the second, with a simple change: She started hitting her backhand down the line, to Azarenka’s forehand, rather than crosscourt. It was enough to earn her a hold and slow Azarenka’s runaway momentum. From there, everything flipped, and Osaka dominated the rest of the way. Serve, forehand, backhand: She was stronger than Azarenka in all departments. Even when she was pushed back in the court, Osaka found ways to be the more offensive player.
“Naomi has the power in this match-up, she hits the ball harder,” Mary Jo Fernandez said. “When she got her rhythm, the ball toss in the right, consistent spot, she controlled the points. It was very basic.”
Osaka has always been described as shy and soft-spoken. After the match she took her time and carefully laid down on the court, in the modern Grand Slam victory pose that Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal have popularized. Why? Because, she said, she didn’t want to fall straight down and risk injuring herself.
Yet underneath that gentle exterior, she is tough, brave, and daring. By wearing the names she wore on her masks, she wasn’t just signaling her support for some vague, anodyne idea of “social justice.” She was specifically protesting police violence against African-Americans. And by winning her third major final in three tries—against Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova and now Azarenka—she proved again that she can’t be intimidated by any stage or any opponent.
“I never played against someone who beat me when I’m trying really hard,” she told Fernandez. That’s not the mindset of a wallflower; it’s one that reminds me of John McEnroe’s, Roger Federer’s and Serena’s—it’s a winner’s mindset.
Osaka took on the responsibility of playing for more than herself over the past two weeks, and she said she felt the pressure of living up to those ambitions.
“Everything off the court was definitely building up,” she said of her time in the bubble. “I had some moments where I was very stressed out.”
“But I think all in all it's the person that's very mentally strong [who wins],” she continued. “For me, it's one step forward because I always wanted to be that type of person.”
Osaka is already mentally strong, and, step by step, she may change how we think of what tennis players and athletes can do with their lives—and their platforms. At this US Open, she showed us that, even in this individual game, you can play your best when you’re playing for more than just yourself.