Naomi Osaka going all the way in the 2020 US Open has much more context now than merely the American chasing her third Grand Slam title.
Before and after her opening round victory on Monday, Osaka wore a mask bearing the name of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was fatally shot by the police in Kentucky. It’s just one of seven face coverings, each in honour of a different person, that Osaka has brought to Flushing Meadows and which she hopes to wear right through to the final. The world’s highest-earning female athlete hopes she can get the chance to raise awareness about racial injustice by using each mask during her stay in New York.
“It’s quite sad that seven masks isn’t enough for the amount of names, so hopefully I’ll get to the finals so you can see all of them,” Osaka, the 2018 US Open and 2019 Australian Open champion, said after defeating 81st-ranked Misaki Doi 6-2, 5-7, 6-2 to ensure her second mask will be put to use, at least.
“I’m aware that tennis is watched all over the world, and maybe there is someone that doesn’t know Breonna Taylor’s story. Maybe they’ll, like, Google it or something,” Osaka said. “For me, (it’s about) just spreading awareness. I feel like the more people know the story, then the more interesting or interested they’ll become in it.”
So here’s Taylor’s story: In March this year, police officers in Louisville—the largest city in Kentucky—executed an apparent “no-knock” search warrant which the officers used to enter the apartment of Taylor for a drug related case.
Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, was living with her boyfriend Kenneth Walker in the apartment. After an argument between them and the officers, Walker fired his gun. The police officers in turn fired several rounds which resulted in Taylor being shot and losing her life. According to reports, no drugs were found in the apartment.
Osaka, born in Japan to a Haitian father and a Japanese mother who moved to USA at the age of three, has been the leading voice among the tennis community to speak out against racial injustice ever since protests gathered pace in USA following the death of George Floyd in May.
Last Thursday, Osaka threatened to pull out of her semi-final at the Western & Southern Open in New York following the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Wisconsin. Her decision to not play—joining forces with the NBA, WNBA and the MLS across America—resulted in the tournament organisers cancelling all matches scheduled for that day in the support of the cause. Osaka agreed to play her last-four match on Friday and walked on to the court sporting a black T-shirt with “Black Lives Matter” written in front of it.
Osaka also put the “Breonna Taylor” mask back on for her post-match interview on Monday. “A lot of people ask me if I feel more stressed out ever since I started speaking out more. To be honest, not really,” Osaka said. “At this point, like, if you don’t like me, it is what it is. You know what I mean?”
In the absence of fans at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the US Open organisers have placed large BLM banners in the stands of the main courts, something Osaka appreciated. “I feel like we’re heading towards a great direction, and there are a lot of players that are supporting it. I think there are a lot of voices that are contributing towards a lot of things, so it’s definitely very nice to see,” she said.