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Naomi Osaka keeps victims of racial injustice in spotlight with US Open masks

  • Player wore covering with George Floyd’s name before latest win
  • ‘I’m a vessel, in order to spread awareness,’ says title favourite

Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka brought seven masks to the US Open displaying the names of black Americans unjustly killed at the hands of police or civilians, and will have worn all of them if she reaches Saturday’s final. Composite: Getty; AP

Naomi Osaka continued to highlight racial injustice in the United States by wearing a mask displaying the name of George Floyd, the black American who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck in Minneapolis in May, before her quarter-final win at the US Open. It was the fifth of seven face coverings the former champion has brought to Flushing Meadows.

After Osaka’s 6-3, 6-4 victory over Shelby Rogers, ESPN showed video messages from Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, and Marcus Arbery Sr, the father of Ahmaud Arbery, two of the five names she has worn on face masks at the grand slam.

Fulton said: “I just want to say thank you to Naomi Osaka for representing Trayvon Martin on your customised mask and also for Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Continue to do well. Continue to kick butt at the US Open. Thank you.”

Arbery Sr said: “Naomi, I just want to tell you thank you for the support of my family. God bless you for what you’re doing and you’re supporting our family with my son. My family really, really appreciates that.”

Two more masks bearing the names of black people unjustly killed at the hands of police or civilians in the US remain in Osaka’s kit bag for her semi-final against Jennifer Brady and if she goes on to reach her second US Open final on Saturday.

The 2018 champion, who also won the Australian Open in 2019, told ESPN: “I feel like they [the victims’ families] are so strong. I’m not sure what I would be able to do if I was in their position, but I feel like I’m a vessel at this point, in order to spread awareness. It’s not going to dull the pain, but hopefully I can help with anything they need.”

The 22-year-old, who has a Japanese mother and Haitian father and grew up in the US, added: “I was just trying really hard not to cry. For me, it’s a bit surreal. It’s extremely touching that they would feel touched by what I’m doing. For me, I feel like what I’m doing is nothing. It’s a speck of what I could be doing.”

Two weeks ago Osaka pulled out of her semi-final match at the Western & Southern Open in reaction to the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Osaka wrote in a statement on her social media accounts: “As a black woman I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis.” She later rejoined the tournament and arrived at her match against Elise Mertens wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt.

In the US Open first round the title favourite wore a facial covering that featured the name of Taylor, who was shot to death by police in her own home. In the second, her face mask showed the name of Elijah McClain, a young black man who died in police custody in Denver last year.

“I’m aware that tennis is watched all over the world and maybe there is someone that doesn’t know Breonna Taylor’s story,” Osaka told the Washington Post. “For me [it’s] just spreading awareness. I feel like the more people know the story, then the more interesting or interested they’ll become in it. It’s quite sad that seven masks isn’t enough for the amount of names.”

Last month Osaka spoke about the importance of using her platform. “I hate it when random people say athletes shouldn’t be involved with politics and just entertain,” she told WSJ magazine. “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 [furniture]?”

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