Tennis pro, trendsetter, activist, mental health advocate, and history maker, are just a few monikers that describe our 2021 Wilma Rudolph Courage Award recipient, Naomi Osaka.
Since breaking into the professional tennis circuit with her powerful serve and strong forehand in 2013, Osaka has become a four-time Grand Slam champion – winning both the US Open and the Australian Open twice. Osaka is the first Asian player to hold the WTA world number one ranking in singles, and the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam. Representing her native country of Japan, Osaka was bestowed the prestigious honor of lighting the Cauldron at the opening ceremony for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Osaka has become known as a voice in activism on and off the court. She ceaselessly uses her platform and her voice to advocate for social change, gender equity in sport, and mental health. During last year’s Western and Southern Open she withdrew from playing, helping to raise awareness for the tragic deaths of Jacob Blake, Tamir Rice and many other Black men and women. Her powerful message on social media resulted in the tournament pausing play for 24 hours: “Before I am an athlete, I am a black woman. And 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.”
Three days later, Osaka walked into Arthur Ashe Stadium wearing a black face covering. It bore the name Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was fatally shot by police. Over the course of the US Open, Osaka wore a different mask for each of her seven victories. Each mask commemorating a Black person who was a victim of violence. Osaka emerged as the champion of the US Open, lifting the trophy to honor Black lives and making a bold statement against racism and inequality.
Earlier this year, Osaka took a stand for her own mental well-being and in so doing, brought world-wide attention to the topic of mental health and the challenges elite athletes face. Expectations, constant demand, the weight of perfectionism, can all spur anxiety. Heralded by the fans as you rise, yet the cheers can turn in a moment, when you falter. The courage to put her mental well-being first, Osaka received accolades from health-care professionals, appreciation from fellow athletes across sports, and she spurred the general public to stop and think about mental health. Courage and character beyond her 23 years.
Pursuing passion and achievements off the court as well, Osaka made her debut at New York Fashion Week in 2020, showcasing a collection she co-designed with Adeam, and just recently served as co-host of the 2021 MET Gala. Osaka is also an entrepreneur, recently launching a skincare brand named KINLO, in homage to her bicultural heritage (Kin and Lo meaning ‘gold’ in Japanese and Haitian Creole, respectively.)
Osaka is a three-time member of Time’s annual list of the100 most influential people in the world, and was named one of the 2020 Sports Illustrated Sportspersons of the Year, an Ad Week Most Powerful Woman in Sports.