Monday marked the first day of the 2020 U.S. Open, one of the biggest tournaments of the tennis season. Naomi Osaka, currently ranked ninth in the world by the WTA, competed (and won) in the first round against Japan’s Misaki Doi with Osaka taking two sets. While Osaka’s performance was, as usual, an exciting feast for the eyes, it’s what she did outside of her match with Doi that left an indelible mark on the U.S. Open’s first day.
During her warm-ups and in a post-match presser, Osaka wore a cloth face mask that was printed with the name of Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old woman who was shot to death by Louisville police officers as she slept in her home. Osaka, who temporarily dropped out of the Western & Southern Open last week to protest racial violence, said that she’d brought seven different masks with the names of seven different victims of police violence–one for each round of the tournament, according to the Washington Post.
Osaka’s mask, and the six that will follow it if she makes it to the finals, is poised to be the most significant gear-related moment in tennis since Serena Williams donned the catsuit, a fashion moment that will change the dress rules of the French Open. The Grand Slam tournaments (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open) have long been battlegrounds for women of color who seek to bend the strict norms of court attire, for which each Open sets specific rules. Serena Williams notably faced off against these restrictions by opting to wear formfitting trousers and shorts instead of the usual dainty, a-line tennis dresses of her white peers. This time, officials won’t be able to easily block Osaka’s public protest, lest they intend to shirk pandemic safety precautions. When asked about the masks Osaka said during a post-match interview, “It’s quite sad that seven masks isn’t enough for the number of names.”
For Osaka and her legion of tennis fans, the Breonna Taylor mask isn’t just a statement of protest, it’s Osaka accepting her role as the future of tennis. Before they were icons, Venus and Serena Williams were representatives for the immense power and potential of Black women in sport. They used their platform to broach topics other tennis players couldn’t talk about for fear of alienation in a white male-dominated sport, like pay equity, sexism, racism, and classism. Someday, the Williams sisters will retire from the court and a huge gap will be left behind. Naomi Osaka is more than equipped to fill those Nikes.