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Naomi Osaka Bursts the Bubble

By Giri Nathan

Tennis is currently in a bubble to seal itself against a pandemic, but it is always in a kind of perma-bubble, sealed off from the sociopolitical noise of the outside world. Right now there is no player better at popping that bubble than Naomi Osaka, who brought a conscience to the sport this week in “Cincinnati”–via–New York. After going down a set and a break to Anett Kontaveit, the fourth-seeded Osaka won her quarterfinal on Wednesday afternoon. A few hours later, the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks announced that they would not leave their locker room before a playoff game against the Orlando Magic. “We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers be held accountable,” said the Bucks players in a statement, referring to a police shooting of 29-year-old Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., and calling on their elected officials to take action. “For this to occur, it’s imperative for the Wisconsin State Legislature to reconvene after months of inaction and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform.”

NBA players, huddled inside a bubble in Orlando, discussed ending the postseason altogether. The WNBA, MLB, and MLS joined in on the strike by refusing to play scheduled games on Wednesday. And Osaka was the bridge between the rest of the American sports and tennis, which will stay anchored in America through the US Open. Here’s the statement she released Wednesday night, in which she announced she would be sitting out her semifinal match on Thursday in protest:

Hello, as many of you are aware I was scheduled to play my semifinals match tomorrow. However, 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. 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. 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? #JacobBlake, #BreonnaTaylor, #ElijahMcclain, #GeorgeFloyd

Later Wednesday night, the USTA announced that it would be suspending all play at “Cincinnati” on Thursday. The governing body of American tennis, just a few days before the signature tournament in American tennis, is suspending play to call attention to American protest. It was unprecedented in this or any other sports league, and it wouldn’t have made its way into tennis if not for a vector—which is to say, a player who cared, which is to say, Naomi Osaka. It had to be a player who was (1) still in the draw, (2) attuned to specifically American unrest in this bubbled international sport, and (3) willing to accept the consequences of sitting out a match. That all aligned in Osaka, who has been an expressive participant in protests against police brutality this summer.

In the end, the delay was short-lived. “I was (and am) ready and prepared to concede the match to my opponent. However, after my announcement and lengthy consultation with the WTA and USTA, I have agreed at their request to play on Friday,” Osaka said in a statement on Thursday. “They offered to postpone all matches until Friday and in my mind that brings more attention to the movement.” The NBA, too, looks like it’ll be resuming its postseason despite suggestions otherwise. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bummed to see how quickly normalcy has crept back into a radical moment. That there were even tremors of a general strike in some corners last night now feels silly in the light of day. But even that one day of rest sets a powerful precedent: Athletes now fully understand the leverage they have to bring their workplaces to a standstill, to focus the beam of fans’ and owners’ attention on what actually matters to the athletes. That’s a power to be reckoned with.

Above: Naomi Osaka before her semifinal match in “Cincinnati” Friday. (Getty Images)

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Issue No. 14

Our solitary pursuits issue, conceived and executed during quarantine. Andrea Petkovic on holiday, selfies from Stefanos Tsitsipas a.k.a. Steve the Hawk, and Serena and Venus singing karaoke on the Lower East Side.