Tennis star Naomi Osaka is one of the five athletes to be named the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year. The iconic publication honoured Osaka, along with LeBron James, Breanna Stewart, Patrick Mahomes and Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff for their athletic achievements and activism.
Osaka, whose mother is Japanese and father Haitian, claimed her third Grand Slam title at the down-scaled US Open, which was played in front of empty stands.
But it was her journey to the final that raised eyebrows and reaped accolades. The 23-year-old Osaka wore a different face mask for the seven matches she played, each of them depicting the name of a victim of racial injustice or police violence.
She made people stop and take notice with her play & her words.
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) December 7, 2020
Tennis legend Martina Navratilova penned the piece unveiling Osaka as the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year.
“At a time when it seems that almost everyone in this world wants to be famous, whether they have a talent or not, there’s something very sweet and refreshing about Naomi, who certainly has a talent, but no need to be famous,” wrote Navratilova, an athlete-activist herself.
“She just wants to play ball. At 23, Naomi has become a force on the tennis court, winning the US Open in September for the second time, coming back from a set down to beat Victoria Azarenka.
“But in 2020 she also became a huge force off the court. Naomi’s not someone you can dismiss as just a liberal whatever. This wasn’t political. She was humanizing the enormous problem of police violence against Black people in America. This was about fairness. This was about human rights.”
Osaka is possibly one of the most soft-spoken celebrities, despite being the highest earning female athlete in the world. But the introverted player found her voice this summer: even as tennis tried to get back on its feet after the pandemic in the New York bubble and the Black Lives Matter movement raged on outside of it.
Note to my introverted 13 year old self : in about 10 years you’re finally going to open your mouth and it will trigger more people than you could’ve ever imagined 🧚🏾☺️💕✨
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) December 5, 2020
“Here was an opportunity, as Naomi saw it, to use her fame and her voice to address something so much more important than winning a tennis tournament,” added Navratilova, an 18-time singles Grand Slam champion.
“When you’re as introverted as Naomi is, you’re usually not comfortable talking about yourself; sometimes it’s better to talk about other people or other issues. And I think that’s what she has discovered.”
Not everyone supported Osaka’s activism. But she took all the bouquets and brickbats in her stride, beating the resurgent Azarenka in the final to claim the title.
“The first time Naomi won the U.S. Open, against Serena Williams in 2018, she had to deal with the booing of the crowd.” wrote Navratilova.
“The second time, in the middle of a pandemic, she played to an empty Arthur Ashe Stadium. Maybe one day she will win the championship with a full house cheering for her. That she could play such great tennis when there was no one in the stands was an illustration of her inner strength and character and how she just gets on with it.”
Recently, Osaka also featured on TIME magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People of 2020.