Naomi Osaka Becomes First Individual Sport Athlete to Sit Out

    • The former world No. 1 tennis player announced she would not play her semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open.
    • Osaka’s decision came amid an avalanche of professional sports strikes set off by the Milwaukee Bucks in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake.

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Former world No. 1 tennis player Naomi Osaka would not play her semifinal match in the Western & Southern Open Aug. 27, choosing to sit out in protest of police brutality in the United States. 

The Western & Southern Open later paused play on the 27th to “recognize this moment in time,” resuming its tournament on the 28th. In a statement, the USTA, ATP Tour, and WTA said, “as a sport, tennis is collectively taking a stance against racial inequality and social injustice that once again has been thrust to the forefront in the United States.”

Osaka’s decision came amid an avalanche of professional sports strikes set off by the Milwaukee Bucks, who decided to strike following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin Aug. 23. The Bucks did not take the court for their Game 5 playoff matchup against the Orlando Magic, and shortly after, the NBA postponed its remaining slate of games. Within hours, multiple MLB teams — and individual players — decided not to play their scheduled games, as did teams in the WNBA. Five scheduled MLS games were also postponed. 

The 22-year-old Osaka, currently ranked No. 10 in the world, is the first individual sport athlete to sit out of a competition. She was scheduled to play Belgian Elise Mertens.

Osaka — whose father is Haitian and mother is Japanese — has lived in the U.S. since she was 3 years old but represents Japan. She said in a statement posted to Twitter that “before she is an athlete, she is a Black woman,” and that there are “more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching [her] play tennis.” 

“I don’t expect anything drastic to happen with me not playing, but if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport I consider that a step in the right direction,” she wrote. “Watching the continued genocide of Black people at the hand of the police is honestly making me sick to my stomach. I’m exhausted of having a new hashtag pop up every few days and I’m extremely tired of having this same conversation over and over again. When will it ever be enough? #JacobBIake, #BreonnaTaylor, #EIijahMcClain, #GeorgeFloyd”

In an interview with Wall Street Journal Magazine published Aug. 25, Osaka said she had flown to Minneapolis from Los Angeles to join protests following the killing of George Floyd. She also rebuked the idea that athletes should stay out of politics. 

“I hate when random people say athletes shouldn’t get involved with politics and just entertain,” Osaka said. “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?’” 

She also published an essay in Esquire in early July supporting Black Lives Matter and advocating for defunding the police. 

Osaka’s decision to sit out her match will undoubtedly send shock waves throughout the sport of tennis, in which the vast majority of players are white. Notably, the U.S. Tennis Association is currently trying to hire a diversity and inclusion officer and is launching a new social and inclusivity program around the U.S. Open this year.

Osaka earned $37 million between prize money and endorsements between May 2019 and 2020, setting a new record for a female athlete in a single year. Maria Sharapova previously held the record, earning $29.7 million in 2015. Osaka’s portfolio includes an apparel deal with Nike reportedly worth around $10 million, signed last year, that runs through 2025.

Osaka is seen as a valuable endorsement partner, as she has a large following in Japan. Also among her 15 sponsorship agreements are global brands Nissan Motor, cosmetics company Shiseido and her tennis racket provider Yonex.