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Naomi Osaka is redefining what it means to be “good for the game”
The 22-year-old has brought the Jacob Blake protests to tennis, and, by extension, to the world outside the U.S.
Published Aug 27, 2020
People in tennis like to talk about players who are “good for the game.” When we do, we typically refer to the sport’s entertainers, its characters, its quirky figures, the ones who may not win Grand Slam titles but who can put fans in the seats.
During the George Floyd and now the Jacob Blake protests this summer, Naomi Osaka has begun to redefine what that phrase can mean. In June, she traveled to Minnesota to join the Floyd protests in person. Yesterday, she made the Blake protests personal, too, when she announced that she wouldn’t play her semifinal at the Western & Southern Open in New York.
“Before I am an athlete, I am a black woman,” Osaka said. “And as a black woman I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis.”
In other words, being “good for the game” in the summer of 2020 doesn’t mean being an entertainer, it doesn’t mean being a character, and it definitely doesn’t mean putting fans in the seats, which are empty anyway. It means, in Osaka’s case, making the sport relevant to the social issues in the U.S. today.
Osaka called tennis a “majority white” sport, and in that sense it would seem to be far removed from what’s happening in Kenosha, Wis., right now. But that’s also exactly why a player like Osaka, whose father is Haitian and who grew up in the United States, has an important role to play. She can help put the protests on an international stage, in a way that few U.S. team-based athletes can.
We’ve already see her influence in the words of Milos Raonic after his quarterfinal win last night. “To really make a difference, it has to be a banding together of athletes,” the Canadian said. “It’s about taking a small step and then looking to take the next small step.” Raonic talked about how, considering that nearly a third of the tennis tour takes place in the U.S., the sport has a responsibility to recognize injustice here.
What are those next steps? More athlete boycotts—or, as they should be called, strikes—may be coming soon. Maybe when these athletes do play, they can direct some of their prize money to social-justice causes, or that the USTA do the same. Maybe it’s a matter of continuing the conversation and raising the profile of these issues with tennis fans around the world who may feel distanced from them, or not be familiar with them at all. I’m guessing more tennis players, from all countries, will start to echo Raonic’s words in the coming days.
Osaka herself represents tennis’ global reach. She plays tennis for Japan, which is where her mother is from. Now she’s protesting, as she said, as a black woman, one who has lived most of her life in the U.S. By taking her stance, she’s letting us know that every player and everyone, American or not American, has a stake in what’s happening here now. In the summer of 2020, being good for tennis can mean not being an entertainer. It can mean being a player who uses the sport to draw our attention elsewhere.
For more on Naomi Osaka, read our Tennis Magazine cover story about how she and Coco Gauff have used their platforms as a vehicle to be heard on a subject that connects everyone: humanity.