Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Naomi Osaka, the accidental activist (oh, and top tennis player)

I've been enjoying watching Naomi Osaka recently, both as a tennis player and as an interviewee. The 22-year old comes across as so fresh and pleasant, it's a nice antidote to the usual Djokovic/Medvedev-type intensity and bombast
Naomi Osaka was born in Osaka, Japan, to a Japanese mother and a Black Haitian father, but she moved to the USA at age 3, and sounds for all the world like a typical (if slightly more thoughtful) American teenager. Although she is no stranger to media attention - she has already won several major competitions - she still has a kind of bemused, deer-in-the-headlights presence, as though she is still unsure why anyone is interested in her and her opinions. She is thoughtful, candid and self-deprecating, and not prone to the stock "he/she's playing really right now, but I'm just going to go out there and stick to my game, and give 110%"-type bromides that most tennis (and other sports) players tend to resort to.
There seems to be a certain amount of disinformation swirling about her. I have heard tennis commentators explain auhoritatively the she took the name of her birth-town because her father's French name was too difficult for the Japanese to pronounce, whereas in fact Japanese family registration laws require children of a foreign parent to be registered under the name of the Japanese parent, and Osaka is Naomi's mother's maiden name. More than one American commentator has also explained that Naomi represents Japan (not America or Haiti) because Japan outbid the USA by throwing oodles of money at her, whereas her parent have actually been at great pains to explain that financial gain and the lobbyings of national tennis federations were not involved in the decision. She even gave up her American citizenship recently in order to represent Japan.
Anyway, Ms. Osaki is very much flavour of the month during the current US Open, partly because she is playing some very good tennis, but partly because of her very open Black Lives Matter stance. She unilaterally followed the lead of the NBA by boycotting the major competition before this (Western & Southern Open), causing the whole conpetition to be put on hold (for a day ay least). During the more prestigious US Open, she is wearing a different mask each day emblazoned with the names of Black Americans who have died at the hands of the police.
When asked about her protests, she is kind of apologetic and almost dismissive, although every now and then she makes a comment that demonstrates that she is actually settling into her new status as a role model, and that, as a successful Black (and Asian) woman, she is in a position of some influence in the world, despite her tender years. It's fascinating to watch it happen.

Ms. Osaka went on to win the US Open, for the second time in her still short career. In the post-game questions, on the biggest stage of her young life, when asked what was the message from her mask-wearing - perhaps a bit of a daft question - she still had the wherewithal not to lecture and hector, but responded, "What was the message that you got ... The point is to make people start talking".

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