Tuesday night on ESPN’s makeshift set by the fountain at the U.S. Tennis Center, Naomi Osaka became glassy-eyed. It was an hour after stepping off the court following a quarterfinal breeze over Shelby Rogers, after which Osaka wore a mask honoring George Floyd.
She’s worn a mask before and after each of her Open matches to honor a victim of social injustice. ESPN showed a video of Trayvon Martin’s mother and Ahmaud Arbery’s father, each thanking her for the support.
Osaka paused and choked up. If anyone is confused on why prominent athletes are taking this social justice stand, this was why.
“I feel like I’m a vessel at this point in order to spread awareness,’’ Osaka said. “It’s not going to dull the pain, but hopefully I can help with anything that they need.”
Osaka, who will play in the U.S. Open semifinals Thursday night against Jen Brady, is everything good about sport. The “N’’ in Naomi should stand for nice — on the court and off.
Osaka, whose mother is Japanese and father is Haitian, has been called quirky, but she’s acted in Flushing like she’s 22 going on 32 — mature beyond her years.
You’ll see her apologize to opponents after one of her errant ball tosses forces her to redo a serve. She’s always complimenting a player’s big shot with a clap of her racket.
On these grounds, Osaka consoled a crying Coco Gauff after routing her last year in the third round.
“She’s authentic,’’ one WTA insider said. “Nothing fake about her.’’
When she was asked about her entourage, she said, “My immediate reaction whenever I do bad is to feel sad for everyone because they travel with me and stuff, too.’’
Osaka and Serena Williams are on a collision course for the Open finals in a rematch of their historic-for-all-the-wrong-reasons 2018 finals battle.
It’s a beautiful contrast of styles. Williams is a pioneer, a legend, with a fiery will and the best women’s player of all-time because of a lethal serve. But you wouldn’t exactly call her “nice.’’ She’s so intense and wants to win so badly, sometimes she’s not the best sport. She screams after winning points, after losing points and obviously has had her controversial umpire flare-ups at the Open. She’s not so dissimilar to Jimmy Connors, and that’s why she has so many diehard fans.
The 2018 Open finals incident with Williams and umpire Carlos Ramos might have been over the top, and it actually seems to have changed Serena into gentler soul at age 38. Osaka has just seemed that way from the cradle.
The sport will need Osaka to be its face soon as Williams, who turns 39 this month, is not going to compete forever.
Osaka, who was willing to forfeit her semifinals match in the Western & Southern Open two weeks ago to support the Milwaukee Bucks as they pressed for justice in the Kenosha, Wis., shooting of Jacob Blake, was asked Tuesday what kind of world she’d like to see us in.
“What kind of world?’’ Osaka said. “Everyone just says ‘peace’ all the time. I’m not sure what the world would look like if everything was peaceful, but I would hope that people help each other in times of great need.’’
Osaka had a complicated, humble upbringing and saw prejudice in her native Japan. It was frowned upon when her mother married a Haitian man. To make it easier for Naomi, she kept her mother’s Japanese name.
“The biggest thing is I don’t want people younger than me to suffer through the things I have to suffer through,’’ Osaka said. “ If any younger player reaches out to me and has questions, for sure I’ll answer them. I’ll try to help them out because I know how tough it is to be in that position.”
Osaka moved with her family to Long Island when she was 3. Then onto Florida at 9. Under Japan’s Nationality Act, anyone with dual citizenship must choose one or the other before they turn 22. Osaka chose Japan and will play the 2021 Olympics representing the Land of the Rising Sun.