2020 was unlike any other for Naomi Osaka. Naomi overcame her “crippling shyness” and advocated against social injustice. She wore custom face masks during the 2020 Tennis Open that bore the names of African Americans who were killed by police - one for each of her seven U.S. open matches. She also celebrated her third Grand Slam win by paying homage to her ancestral roots in an orange African printed Grass Fields ruffle dress and headwrap.
Naomi, a 23-year-old tennis superstar and three-time Grand Slam winner, is the number third-ranked professional female tennis player. She was born in Japan to a Japanese mother, Tamaki Osako, and a Haitian father, Leonard Francois. Naomi acknowledges her Haitian-Japanese heritage and identifies as Black and Asian. To this end, Naomi is using her platform to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement and to highlight racial injustice and police brutality victims including Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile, and Tamir Rice. "It is obvious to me that I had to take a stand," says Naomi.
When asked during an ESPN interview why she wore the masks, Naomi replied “I feel like I'm a vessel at this point in order to spread awareness.” A champion on and off the court, she uses her platform like a boss and makes her advocacy position clear. She tweeted, “... before I am an athlete, I am a black woman. 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...if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport, I consider that a step in the right direction.”
Her position could be seen as risky in corporate circles. However, for Naomi, it appears to be a risk worth taking. According to Forbes, Naomi is the highest-paid female athlete of all times, with earnings of $37.4 M in 2019, the most money ever earned in a 12 month period by any female athlete. Such earnings correlate with Naomi’s distinction as being one of the most marketable female athletes in the world. Her marketability has resulted in more than 15 sponsorship deals from global brands such as Nissan Motors, Nike, Shiseido, Mastercard, Citizen Watch, and Yonex to name a few. As a brand ambassador for Nissan, the company planned a limited edition GT-R sports car named after Naomi. Her popularity and influence resulted in pre-order sales exceeding the limited initial offering and a waiting list to purchase the car.
Even with her popularity at an all-time high, Naomi is cognizant of her realities. During a Time Magazine interview, Naomi shared that observing the events in Minneapolis after George Floyd’s death provided perspective to her activism. "I think athletes are scared of losing sponsors whenever they speak out. For me, that was really true, because most of my sponsors are Japanese. They probably have no idea what I'm talking about, and they might have been upset. But there comes a time where you feel like you got to speak what's right and what's important."
Naomi hoped that wearing the masks would “get people talking”. Mission accomplished! Social media and news outlets are abuzz. Not only about how she persevered through the US Open as one of the best tennis players, but also about her decision to highlight social injustice.