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While other players aimed to achieve their goal of winning the US Open, Naomi Osaka was aiming to win it in order to achieve her goal.
Win it she did, capturing her third major by defeating Victoria Azarenka in the final at Flushing Meadows. But Osaka was not at the event just to play tennis.
The 23-year-old from Japan had walked on court for her first round match wearing a face mask. That would no longer have been an unusual sight, except that on hers was written the name of a victim of police violence—part of Osaka's ongoing effort to increase awareness of the issue. She had seven masks with seven names, she told her courtside interviewer—one for each round she hoped to play.
And play them she did, showing and explaining each name following each win, all the way to the trophy ceremony on primetime television.
"What was the message you wanted to send?" Osaka was asked. "What was the message you got?" she said.
It was a memorable moment. Standing on Arthur Ashe Stadium in the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, Osaka was carrying on the sport's long if peripheral tradition of social activism, just as the ones before her had, doing so in a way that was ideally suited to the times.
The tournament followed a turbulent period in which the United States had been gripped by the pandemic and widespread protests against police brutality. Osaka had gone to Minneapolis as protests originally took hold of the city after the killing of George Floyd during the five-month tour hiatus, and also withdrew from the Cincinnati semifinals when another racial incident involving police occurred in the country during the tournament. Her gesture prompted the event to delay play for a day, joining other sports in a stoppage of competition. Then came the show of names at the US Open, turning a product of the pandemic into a space for social protest.
She is also suited for the role. The Japanese-born Osaka has a Haitian father and Japanese mother, and has been brought up largely in the United States. This international background—together with her new status as the highest-earning female athlete in the world—gives her a wide reach, while her assuming demeanor invites a warm reception.
On and off the court, she is now a leading figure in the sport. That was also another message Osaka delivered at the US Open.