CHENNAI: On the first day of the US Open, Naomi Osaka came on to court wearing a face mask with the name Breonna Taylor written across it.
Taylor was an African-American nurse living in Kentucky when police raided her apartment and killed her in March. The 26-year-old had become the latest victim in a series of unlawful killings carried out by US police officials.
The underlying implication was hard to miss — racial injustice. Minutes after her opening match against compatriot Misaki Doi, Osaka said she wanted to memorialise Taylor.
“I just want to spread awareness,” she explained. “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 Google it or something. For me, just spreading awareness. I feel like the more people know the story... “I have seven (masks) and it’s quite sad that seven is not enough for the amount of names. Hopefully I’ll get to the finals and you’ll see all of them.” The Japanese athlete was essentially tying what she was doing off court to her on court success.
This is the kind of pressure that athletes usually try to avoid. Even if this has been a particularly strong year for athlete activism, most are still governed by tunnel vision.
In the case of tennis players, that pertains to a relentless pursuit of improving serves, working on positioning and movement on the court, striving for that extra 1% over opponents et. al.
They usually don’t prefer to talk about anything other than the game during a major tournament because they just want to be in the zone. Not the 22-year-old though. In a year that’s seen her attend rallies for the cause of black people worldwide, she did not let those lofty self imposed ideals weigh her down.
Rather, she used it as a motivational tool. On Sunday night at the cavernous Arthur Ashe stadium, she won her third Major, besting Victoria Azarenka 1-6, 6-3, 6-3.
After the match, she said: “It made me (wearing masks) stronger, because I had more desire to win, because I want to show more names, and I want people to talk about it more.”
The seventh and final name was Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy. He was having a replica toy gun with him when a law enforcement official shot and killed him in Cleveland in 2014. He had met the same fate as six others — Taylor, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile, Elijah McClain and Ahmaud Arbery. Unlawfully killed at the hands of law enforcement officials.
When asked what was the message she had wished to convey through the masks, she said: “Well, what was the message that you got... I feel like the point is to make people start talking...”
This victory of hers has perhaps changed the contours of what’s possible for an active sportsperson to do, including how to effectively use a platform to spread light on an important issue.