On Saturday, Naomi Osaka became the 2020 U.S. Open Women’s Singles Champion. The 22-year-old defeated Victoria Azarenka to win her second US Open title bringing her Grand Slam title count up to three. Osaka battled through seven rounds with a hamstring injury and this championship has lifted her in the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) rankings to the No. 3 spot.
After defeating Azarenka, Osaka laid down on the court facing the sky and stayed there for a few moments.
“I was thinking about all the times I’ve watched the great players sort of collapse onto the ground and look up into the sky. I’ve always wanted to see what they saw,” Osaka said. “For me, it was really an incredible moment. I’m really glad I did it.”
Osaka entered the stadium for the first of her seven matches wearing a black mask that had Breonna Taylor’s name written in white. Taylor was murdered in her home by Kentucky police.
“For me, I felt like it made me stronger, because I felt like I have more desire to win,” Osaka told ESPN, “because I want to show more names and I want people to talk about it more.”
Osaka, who has been vocal about her opposition to racism and police brutality, brought a mask displaying the name of a black person who died due to racism, bigotry or at the hands of police for each tournament.
Osaka 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, like, Google it or something. For me, (it’s about) just spreading awareness.”
Her masks included the names of Elijah McClain, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Philando Castile. The final mask she wore displayed the name of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was murdered in 2014 by police in Cleveland, Ohio in 2014.
When Osaka was questioned in a press conference about the message behind her masks, she appropriately redirected the inquiry.
“‘What was the message that you got?’ is more the question,” she said. “I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”
“Before I am an athlete, I am a black woman,” Osaka said. “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.”
Osaka received video messages from Sybrina Fulton the mother of Trayvon Martin, and Marcus Arbery Sr. the father of Ahmaud Arbery, thanking her for remembering and honoring their children by wearing their names on her masks.
In response to the videos she said, “…It means a lot…they are so strong. I’m not sure what I would be able to do if I was in their position, but I feel like I’m a vessel at this point in order to spread awareness. It’s not going to dull the pain but hopefully I can help with anything that they need.”
Osaka also took a moment to honor Kobe Bryant, who was a big brother and mentor to her, by donning his No. 8 jersey. On an IG post she wrote, “I wore this jersey every day after my matches. I truly think it gave me strength. Always (love).” Osaka credits Bryant with helping her find confidence. “There would be some really tough losses,” Osaka explained. “I didn’t even know he was paying attention, but he would text me positive things and tell me to learn from it. For me, it was definitely helpful.” She shared in an interview that she told Bryant she wanted to be like him. What he said to her she carries to this day. Bryant responded, “No, be better.”