Naomi Osaka Was Robbed, And We Are All Complicit
Why aren’t we celebrating her stoic strength and near-perfect game?
Naomi Osaka, at 20 years old, has become the first person from Japan to win a Grand Slam. Since going pro in 2013, she became the first unseeded winner at the BNP Paribas Open since Kim Clijsters in 2005; she clocks a 125 mph serve (a speed that only eight women have ever achieved); and she now ranks 7th in the world. And on Saturday, she played a near-perfect game, beating one of the greatest tennis players alive today to win the women’s final of the US Open 2018.
Naomi Osaka is everything that is exciting about tennis right now.
But this weekend, amidst a maelstrom of accusations and press coverage, the celebration that her victory should have been — her first Grand Slam title — was stolen from her.
By now the internet has been flooded with think-pieces, editorials, and angry tweets about Serena Williams’s right to be enraged, about double-standards and sexism in tennis, about the entitlement in Williams’s statements, and about the costs of black feminist anger. These are important conversations, crucial to a game that has a history of sexism (and racism). But in our collective outburst against these larger issues, have we lost sight of what is at stake? Within this discourse of gender discrimination in the game, has Naomi Osaka become collateral damage?
Osaka, half-Haitian and half-Japanese, represents a challenge to cultural perceptions of identity. Born in Japan, her family moved to to the US when she was three, and she grew up with a multicultural background that is familiar to so many other immigrants. While she exudes confidence on the court, in interviews Osaka is quietly quirky, dropping casual Pokémon references and self-deprecating jokes. By embracing her as a tennis player and a public figure, fans in Japan, the US, and around the world, are also embracing the multiracial and multicultural identities that she represents. And that, in itself, is something to be hopeful about. Osaka’s win should have been a celebration of this, but the next day’s media headlines were dominated by Williams instead.
During the game on Saturday, we witnessed two women’s responses to injustice.
Williams has faced a lifetime of discrimination in a game where she, as a black woman, has had to prove herself over and over again. She has been denigrated for her body, her clothes, her hair, and has repeatedly been punished more harshly than her male counterparts. Her outburst at the umpire, Carlos Ramos, feels like a release of all this pent-up frustration — not only at him, but at the systemic way the gatekeepers of the game police (black) women. The burden of being Serena Williams feels like the burden of so many other women.
On the other end of the court, however, Osaka embodied a different, but familiar response for women — to be composed, stoic, focused. To be determined, amid the disarray — to get the job done.
So, while we praise Williams for expressing her rage and demanding her apology, for her defiance in the face of habitual discrimination, we need to acknowledge also Osaka’s quiet strength. Somehow, amongst the headlines and heated discussions, we have forgotten something crucial: This moment belongs to her.
On the podium, nobody was smiling. While the crowd booed, Osaka pulled her visor down over her face, crying. Williams had to request the crowd, incensed by the unfairness of the umpire’s calls and Williams’s own statements, to give Osaka what was her due. But at that point, it seemed it was too late.
In the press conference later, Williams said, “I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and that wants to express themselves and they want to be a strong woman and they’re going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s gonna work out for the next person.”
This contextualization of the incident, as part of a larger trend of sexism to be grappled with within our culture, has become the focal point for most of us. The struggle to approach discrimination head-on, and call it out, is incredibly important. But in trying to argue against the sexism that diminishes women’s accomplishments, we’ve sacrificed Osaka’s.
Although the umpire was the one accused of being a thief, perhaps we’ve all robbed Osaka of something important.
Nadia Nooreyezdan is The Swaddle's culture editor. Since graduating from Columbia Journalism School, she spends her time thinking about aliens, cyborgs, and social justice sci-fi. She's also working on a memoir about her family's journey from Iran to India.