With tennis, like so many around the world, closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Naomi Osaka found herself with time to read and think.
And while she won the US Open for her third Grand Slam title, she also stood out for speaking out against racial injustice and police brutality.
As notable in 2020 for her far-from-the-tennis activism as her success, Osaka was selected by The Associated Press as Female Athlete of the Year in the results revealed on Sunday after a vote from AP-member sports editors and writers. AP beat.
“It was difficult to be isolated from my family for much of the year, but it’s nothing compared to others. It was sad to watch and read the news of people suffering from COVID-19, and the economic and social effect on so many people – job loss, mental health. It has been such a difficult year for so many people, ”Osaka wrote in an email interview. “And then watching police injustices like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake (to name a few) in the summer broke my heart. I’m proud of my victory at the US Open, but most of all that people are talking about the real issues. ”
Osaka garnered 18 of 35 first-place votes and a total of 71 points.
WNBA Finals MVP Breanna Stewart was next with nine first place votes and 60 points, followed by Sarah Fuller, the Vanderbilt soccer player who played for the school soccer team, with one vote for first place and 24 points.
LeBron James was announced as the AP Male Athlete of the Year on Saturday.
Billie Jean King, 12-time Grand Slam singles champion and decades-long pioneer, praised Osaka for positioning itself “as a leader not only in women’s tennis but in all sports and a force for change in our society “.
“She has successfully accomplished the difficult task of achieving excellence in athletic performance and using this platform to succeed outside of sport on a much bigger stage,” King told the AP. “She sparked a conversation about social justice, the results of which were greater than tennis, greater than sport, and in doing so raised the bar for all who want to harness the gifts and talents that we. have to make a difference in our world. ”
Osaka went 16-3 during the coronavirus-truncated tennis schedule – professional tours lasted around five months; Wimbledon was canceled for the first time since 1945 – and ended the year in third place.
Osaka’s defining stretch of season came in August and September, when she compiled an 11-game winning streak that included the US Open.
It was during a tune-up tournament in New York City that Osaka – whose father is Haitian and mother is Japanese – declared that she would not play her semi-final, joining NBA athletes and besides to protest against the police shooting of Blake.
“There are clearly so many valid issues. This particularly resonated with me because of my own personal upbringing; and also during the tennis tour break I got to watch and read the news in detail for the first time in my life. This summer in the United States, tensions were high and reached their boiling point, ”Osaka said. “It was a good time for me to speak.”
Taking its lead, this tournament came to a complete halt for a day.
“His activism shed light on how we as individuals and sports leagues can collectively make an impact,” said WTA President and CEO Steve Simon. “Not only is she a phenomenal tennis player, but she also demonstrates how athletes have the ability to use their platform for something bigger than the game or themselves. Her actions are simply inspiring and she so deserves this recognition. “
During the US Open, Osaka drew attention to black victims of violence by arriving for matches wearing masks bearing the names of Floyd, Taylor, Tamir Rice, Elijah McClain, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery and Philando Castile.
“To be honest, I really didn’t stop thinking about what other people would think of my actions. The opinions of others weren’t going to stop me from doing what I know in my heart to be the right thing to do, ”Osaka said. “The strong voices of Colin (Kaepernick) and LeBron have certainly been positive influences for me and have given me strength in my own beliefs.”
In 2021, Osaka, 23, listed these goals: “work hard, do better, talk, be kind”.
Japan, where she was born, is expected to host the postponed Olympics next year.
“I can’t wait to be with the athletes who have waited and coached for over 10 years, to celebrate a very difficult year (2020), and for this to happen in Japan to make it even more special,” Osaka said. “It is a special and beautiful country filled with culture, history and beauty. I couldn’t be more excited.
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