Commentary: Ironic Naomi Osaka and Black awareness on a stained tennis whiteness

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Commentary: Ironic Naomi Osaka and Black awareness on a stained tennis whiteness
September 16
12:45 2020

By Dr. English Bradshaw

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. Frederick Douglass 

Arthur Ashe won five Grand Slam titles from 1968 to 1977. This includes three single titles and two doubles titles. He won the U.S. men’s single crown in 1968 and was 31 years old in 1975 (seemingly well past his prime) when he whiplashed the brash 22- year-old Jimmy Connors – the defending Wimbledon champion. to win the Wimbledon finals. 

Seventeen year-old Serena Williams won her first Grand Slam at the U.S. Open in 1999 by defeating Martina Hingis and has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, the most by any player in the Open Era, and the second-most of all time behind Margaret Court and ranked first in the list of the highest-paid women athletes. 

Naomi Osaka was only a year old when Serena Williams won her first Grand Slam title in 1999. Nineteen years later, Osaka beat Williams at the U.S. Open final to win her first Grand Slam. And now, at the Arthur Ashe Tennis Complex, the 22-year-old ace has beaten her legendary rival once again – the 38 year old and mother of a three year old – this time for bragging rights as the highest-paid female athlete in the world. 

This is not a discourse on firsts,”but check out the ironies that history has presented to us. Singularly, biracial Naomi Osaka – the young, extremely articulate, humble-focused, and with her clear soft-throated awareness – used her run to the U.S. Open finals to draw attention to police brutality and racism. With her youthful gracefulness and deference to the prevailing angst against this white privileged institution, she donned seven face masks – one for each round of the U.S. Open – with the names of Black people killed in violent interactions with either police or others allegedly motivated by racism. The face masks bore the names of Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice. 

Significantly, in her finals match Saturday, she wore the seventh and last mask name, Tamir Rice – the now almost mystical and forgotten case – of the 12-year-old African American boy killed by police in Cleveland on November 22, 2014. Tamir Rice was carrying a toy Airsoft gun and was shot and killed almost immediately after arriving on the scene by Timothy Loehmann, a 26-year-old police officer. Yet, in Kenosha, Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old white boy brandishing an AR15 automatic rifle equipped with a 30-round magazine, after killing two protesters, was waved along by police saying he has “just killed somebody” as he walked away from the scene and went home to spend a peaceful night. 

The families of some of the victims Osaka chose to represent with her facemasks have shared their support for her statement. Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton thanked her and told her to “continue to do well, continue to kick butt at the U.S. Open.” Ahmaud Arbery’s father said: “Naomi, I just want to tell you thank you for the support for my family and God bless you for what you’re doing.” 

And, with youthful genuflection, the 22-year old said, “It means a lot, they’re so strong. I’m not sure what I would be able to do if I was in their position. I feel like I’m a vessel at this point to spread awareness. It’s not going to dull the pain, but hopefully I can help with anything that they need.” 

To those outside the tennis world, Osaka is a relatively fresh face with a great backstory. With her being youthful and bicultural, she is now emerging as a global sports marketing icon. During the past 12 months, Forbes reports, she has earned $37.4 million from prize money and endorsements – $1.4 million more than Serena, setting an all-time earnings record for a female athlete in a single year. Maria Sharapova previously held the record with $29.7 million in 2015. Osaka now ranks No. 29 among the 100 highest- 

paid athletes, while Williams is No. 33. This is the first time since 2016 that two women have made the ranks of the 100 highest-paid athletes. 

And so, the ironies continue. Osaka’s ascension puts another end to a decisive winning streak for Serena, who has been the world’s highest-paid female athlete each of the past four years, with annual pre-tax income ranging from $18 million to $29 million. Serena has collected almost $300 million during her career from endorsers. 

How did this happen so rapidly? Osaka’s win over Serena at the 2018 U.S. Open, jump-started her career as the most marketable female athlete on the planet. Her rise was a perfect convergence of several factors. She first proved herself on the court with back-to-back Grand Slam titles at the 2018 U.S. Open and the 2019 Australian Open. That, plus her heritage – a Japanese mother and a Haitian-American father – helped separate her from the pack. Also, at only 20 when she won her Open title, she had a cool and engaging personality. 

The ironies continue: Given the current times and circumstances we find ourselves in the struggle for the cessation of white supremacy in America, the solo participant to bring awareness to these issues on this mega-world platform (to my attention) was the small and thunderous voice of Naomi Osaka. Ironically, Naomi was born in Osaka, Japan, a city that received eight days of incessant bombing by the U.S. during WWII, killing more than 10,000 people. When she was three, she and her family moved to the U.S., settling on Long Island. 

Perhaps the greatest irony is this: Naomi Osaka is no longer a United States citizen. According to Japanese law, Osaka had to decide when she reached her 22nd birthday which country’s citizenship she would possess. She could not hold dual citizenship and represent Japan in the 2020 Olympics. And, inasmuch as she being of mixed race with a father from outside of Japan, she wanted to draw attention to Japan’s insularity, she chose to give up her U.S. citizenship and represent her ancestor’s country of Japan. 

And so now Naomi Osaka has set the table for Black American icons and future players to step up and continue her resolve to break down these pristine and privileged walls of racism of this institution, both locally and globally, and hopefully her cohorts alongside her will pick up the gauntlet and carry it into the future. 

CoCo Gauff? Madison Keys? Frances Tiafoe? Sloan Stephens? Alexandra Stevenson? 

Dr. English Bradshaw taught political science and African American studies and established the Ethnic Studies Program at the University of Hawaii, where he received his undergraduate degree in political science and master’s degree in American Studies. He taught African American studies at the Phillip Brooks House at Harvard University, where he attended Harvard Graduate School of Education and the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Dr. Bradshaw also taught political science and African American studies at Tuskegee University and received his doctorate at the University of Amsterdam.

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