Athlete, activist, daughter: The forms of the formidable Naomi Osaka

Athlete, activist, daughter: The forms of the formidable Naomi Osaka

The 2018 US Open champion is front and center in social justice issues, and in this year's tournament.

How it typically goes in a Naomi Osaka tennis match is that she is the court commander, her big serve and massive groundstrokes the alpha and omega of a blistering attack. On Wednesday night at the US Open, though, Osaka won by letting someone else try to take charge.

Her second-round opponent, 74th-ranked Camila Giorgi, just about always seeks to obliterate the ball, possessed of the unproven belief that points are won strictly by hitting winners.

Well aware as we are that powerful groundstrokes have come to dominate tennis over the last 30 years, Giorgi takes the concept of firepower to a whole new level.  Whether that means up or down is a worthy dialogue, but on this occasion, in 70 swift minutes, Osaka dispatched this dangerous opponent comprehensively, 6-1, 6-2.

“Just playing Camila, I haven't played her in a while, but I know that she goes for things,” said Osaka. “For me it's really helpful mentally just because I know she's capable of finishing points. It gives me motivation to, like, play better, so she's not able to hit winners.”


Giorgi has had memorable moments in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Wednesday night not included. (Getty Images)

Giorgi often didn’t even start points, spraying many service returns and benign rally balls long or wide. Plan B? What about even Plan A-minus?  It’s a head-scratcher to ponder how Giorgi goes about preparing to derail her opponents. Did she really think she could overpower Osaka? Nothing in her tactics revealed any awareness of Osaka’s recent left hamstring injury, or the tape wrapped around her left thigh.     

It would be inaccurate to call Osaka’s game plan defensive. Better, it was intelligent, focused, well-executed. Repeatedly, she drove the ball deep, hard and mildly crosscourt, depriving Giorgi of time, space and the angles that would give her room to slash along the hypotenuse of the court. Many a rally, this alone triggered errors. But on other occasions, when Giorgi’s balls landed short, Osaka laced her share of crosscourt winners.

“I never want to depend on what the other person's going to do,” said Osaka. “Even if I play a power player, for me, my goal is to be the dictator. I think that I was able to do that quite well.

"I think when she was hitting really hard, I was able to neutralize. When I had the chance, I went for the ball that I wanted.”

Even then though, with depth and her own crisp court coverage, Osaka gave Giorgi the chance to implode.  To win a set, you must win 24 points. Giorgi made 24 unforced errors, to only eleven for Osaka.

But proficiency striking a round tennis ball is merely a subset of the broader circle Osaka has come to passionately occupy and vocally address. Over the last week, her sense of her global impact has grown sharply, revealing a refreshing and personal form of social consciousness. Aware that her fame provides her with a platform, following her match tonight, Osaka said, “I should be using it for something.”


Osaka hopes to wear seven different poignant masks during her US Open stay. (Getty Images)

Here at the US Open, she has worn masks revealing names of the slain. For her first-round match Monday night, Osaka honored Breonna Taylor, a Black emergency medical technician who was fatally shot by Louisville Metro Police Department officers. This evening she paid tribute to Elijah McClain, a Black man from Colorado, killed while walking home from a convenience store.    

“I think when I heard about his story it was very hurtful,” said Osaka. “I mean, they're all very hurtful, but just the fact of the character and the way that he was, just to hear stories about him, for me it was very sad. I think this was a bit different because no one can really paint the narrative that he was a bad guy because they had so many stories and so many, like, warmhearted things to say about him.

“I don't know. I feel like I still don't think his name is very put out there compared to, like, George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. For me, today was very special in the way that I wanted to represent him very well.”

To be so expressive and balance this with competition, particularly during this extraordinarily stressful US Open, might seem daunting, but Osaka has found it possible to separate the big ball of earth from the little ball she earns her living from. 

“I think for me, it's just whenever I step on the court I don't think about anything but the match,” she said. “Any off-court things, of course it's a great motivation for me to want to do well this tournament, but for the most part I feel like I've been in quarantine and practicing so long that, I don't know, I prefer to play matches.”


The 2018 US Open champion looked like a bonafide title contender on Wednesday. (Getty Images)

The small ball, the big ball—but then, as often happens with Osaka, moments of levity. Following the match, Osaka’s mother, Tamaki, appeared on a big screen, holding a piece of paper with four rows of emojis.

“Mom? What are you doing?”

A technical glitch made it tough to complete the call, but soon after, Osaka decoded. 

“She was saying, like, there were four lines. Thumbs up fire, which is like good job. There was like a Twitter bird, whatever. She was saying don't go on social media, get some sleep. Then drink a lot of green juice, get some rest. And I love you.”

Be it as athlete, activist, daughter, Naomi Osaka knows her circles.