Naomi Osaka on Fighting for No. 1 at the U.S. Open and Why She’s Speaking Out

As the highest-paid female athlete in the world, Osaka is standing up for Black lives while taking inspiration from her late mentor, Kobe Bryant.

This summer, when the eyes of the world were on Minneapolis in the days following George Floyd’s death, Naomi Osaka flew from Los Angeles to join the protests and commune with people at the street corner where he was killed. Without telling her agent-manager or coach, she decided to pick up and go with her boyfriend, the musician and rapper YBN Cordae. The only sign that she’d been there was a series of photographs she briefly posted on Instagram before removing them from her feed.

“Whenever I have a chance to see something for myself, I jump on it,” says Osaka, 22. “I’ve always watched protests on TV, and I never had the chance to go because I was always playing tennis.” The coronavirus shutdown was the first time she had taken any real time off—ever—she says, since she started playing under her father’s instruction at age 3.

Her visit to Minneapolis wasn’t about tennis or tennis fans or reporters asking her if she feels more American or Japanese. She and her boyfriend remained largely incognito, though Cordae was recognized a couple of times. “I’m not famous like that,” says Osaka, despite having already attained the rank of No. 1 in the world and this past year becoming the world’s highest-paid female athlete, thanks to deals with a broad range of brands including Nike , Mastercard, Shiseido and Top Ramen manufacturer Nissin Foods . She was able to move around the city for a couple of days, soaking everything in.

“Everyone was so passionate,” says Osaka. “There were constantly things going on and people talking to each other about who’s organizing this rally and things like that. I thought it was really powerful.”

Though the reaction to Osaka’s decision to participate in the protests in Minneapolis and then back home in L.A. was mostly positive, a handful of online critics told her to stay in her lane. A few days later, she posted a reply to her Twitter account, where she has over half a million followers: “I hate when random people say athletes shouldn’t get involved with politics and just entertain. Firstly, this is a human rights issue. Secondly, what gives you more right to speak than me? By that logic if you work at IKEA you are only allowed to talk about the ‘GRÖNLID?’ ” In early July, she published an essay in Esquire supporting Black Lives Matter in which she also backed defunding the police.

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