To play or not to play: Naomi Osaka did both, and she won each time

To play or not to play: Naomi Osaka did both, and she won each time

This week, the 22-year-old faced the question that many athlete-activists have faced in the past. How she shook off a sleepless night to beat Elise Mertens.

After her 6-2, 7-6 (5) win over Elise Mertens at the Western and Southern Open on Friday, Naomi Osaka was asked what she was happiest about with her game.

“I’m really glad I didn’t mentally collapse,” Osaka said with a laugh of relief.

Osaka couldn’t sleep last night, she said, and she obviously had a lot on her mind over the previous 48 hours. On Wednesday, she had pulled out of this semifinal to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha. On Thursday, after the tournament postponed all of the semifinals for the same reason, Osaka announced that she would go ahead and play.

“After my announcement and lengthy consultation with the WTA and USTA, I have agreed at their request to play on Friday,” Osaka said. “They offered to postpone all matches until Friday, and in my mind that brings more attention to the movement.”

According to Osaka, her decision to withdrawal wasn’t done on the spur of the moment. For much of the lockdown, she had been contemplating when and how she might mix her politics with her profession, and bring an awareness of social-justice issues to tennis. She also wondered if someone with her relatively reserved personality was the right person to do it.

“During quarantine, I saw a lot of things happening,” Osaka told ESPN’s Chris McKendry on Friday. “I thought it would be nice if someone started something.

“Honestly, I’m more of a follower than a leader,” she continued. “I like to follow things. I was just waiting and waiting, and then I realized I would have to be the one to take the step.”


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Before her semifinal with Mertens, Osaka wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt onto the court. Those are commonplace among NBA players, but not so much with tennis players, at least not yet.

“I just wanted to create awareness within the tennis bubble,” Osaka said.

Osaka credited some of her stand-taking spirit to her father, Leonard Francois, a native of Haiti.

“My dad’s Haitian,” Osaka said with a smile. “We do this.”

Taking a stand, of course, isn’t always as as easy or straightforward as it sounds, even when the cause is indisputably just. This week Osaka faced the tricky decision that every activist-athlete has faced from Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King in the 1970s to LeBron James and his fellow NBA players in their Florida bubble today: What is the best way to use your platform and make your voice heard? Is it more effective to protest by playing, or by refusing to play? When you play, and especially when you play and win, you increase your value as a spokesperson for a cause. But by playing, you may also feel as if you’re distracting people from the life-and-death events that are happening on the streets of other cities. As Osaka said on Wednesday, “I feel there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis.”

This week, Osaka and the NBA players split the difference: They made their statement and then went back to work. As a politically engaged athlete, Osaka will surely face similar questions and similarly complex situations again. And she may face more sleepless nights over her decisions.

Hopefully, as other stars with similar concerns return to the courts, she won’t be alone in making them, and won’t be alone in changing the entire schedule of a tournament, the way she was this week. Some players, like Mertens, fully supported her, while others were reportedly miffed that the USTA postponed play for a day. Tennis is obviously a polyglot sport, and not every player will feel the same sense of urgency about social and racial issues in the U.S. as Osaka does. But in that lies an opportunity: She can use the sport’s reach to raise awareness globally.


Extended Highlights: Osaka's semifinal win over Mertens


For a woman playing on no sleep, Osaka held up well in her dual roles on Friday. She started with an immediate break of serve and raced to a 5-1 lead. She survived a hard second-set charge by Mertens, who had been playing excellent tennis all week. She saved 18 of 21 break points, seven of them in the match’s longest and most crucial game, at 4-4 in the second set. She shook off the disappointment of losing a match point at 6-5. And from 3-4 down in the tiebreaker, she won four of the next five points to sneak away with the match. She beat a quality opponent while making just 52 percent of her first serves.

Most of all, Osaka won when she knew the world would be watching. From now on, her off-court stances may mean that she’ll be more closely scrutinized. Like Ashe and King in their day, she’ll know that the better she plays, the bigger her platform will become. Billie Jean is famous for saying that “pressure is a privilege.” For athlete-activists like her and Osaka, it’s a privilege that they’ve earned by doing what they feel they have to do: The right thing.