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    Ready or Not, Hideki Matsuyama Is Now a National Hero in Japan

    By winning the Masters, the publicity-shy golfer will face a news media spotlight that trails every move of Japanese athletes abroad.TOKYO — Hideki Matsuyama has never been a fan of the spotlight. Even as he rose to become Japan’s most successful male golfer, he did his best to avoid the attention lavished on the every move of other Japanese athletes who have shined on the global stage.But with his win on Sunday at the Masters in Augusta, Ga., the glare will now be inescapable. His victory, the first by a Japanese man in one of golf’s major championships, is the fulfillment of a long-held ambition for the country, and it guarantees that he will be feted as a national hero, with the adoration and scrutiny that follows.Japan is a nation of avid golfers, and the game’s status as the sport of choice for the Western business and political elite has given it a special resonance. Success in sports has long been a critical gauge of the country’s global standing, with the United States and Europe often the standard by which Japan measures itself.“We have always dreamed of winning the Masters,” said Andy Yamanaka, secretary-general of the Japan Golf Association. “It’s a very moving moment for all of us. I think a lot of people cried when he finished.”Those tears reflect, in part, an island nation that sees itself as smaller and less powerful than other major countries, even though it is the world’s third-largest economy. That means athletes who represent it globally are often burdened with expectations and pressures that transcend the field of play.The country’s news media has followed the exploits of its athletes abroad with an intensity that some have found unnerving. When the baseball star Ichiro Suzuki joined the Seattle Mariners, Japanese news organizations set up bureaus in the city devoted exclusively to covering him. Television stations here broadcast seemingly obscure major league games just in case a Japanese player appears. Even modest scoring performances by a Japanese N.B.A. player can trigger headlines.Golf is no exception. Even during low-stakes tournaments, a gaggle of Japanese reporters often trail Matsuyama, 29, a degree of attention that the media-shy golfer seems to have found overwhelming.At Augusta, the pressure — at least from the news media — was blessedly low. Covid-19 restrictions had kept attendance by journalists to a minimum, and Japan’s press turned out in small numbers. After finishing Saturday’s third round with a four-stroke lead, Matsuyama admitted to reporters that “with fewer media, it’s been a lot less stressful for me.” The pressure is on for Matsuyama to win a gold medal in golf for Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.Doug Mills/The New York TimesHis victory was a major breakthrough for a country that has the world’s second-largest number of golf players and courses. The game is a ubiquitous presence throughout the nation, with the tall green nets of driving ranges marking the skyline of virtually every suburb. In 2019, the P.G.A. added its first official tournament in Japan.In the century since the game was introduced to Japan by foreign merchants, the country has produced a number of top-flight players, like Masashi Ozaki and Isao Aoki. But until now, only two had won major tournaments, both women: Hisako Higuchi at the 1977 L.P.G.A. Championship and Hinako Shibuno at the 2019 Women’s British Open.Earlier this month, another Japanese woman, Tsubasa Kajitani, won the second ever amateur women’s competition at Augusta National.Matsuyama’s Masters victory was the crowning achievement of a journey that began at the age of 4 in his hometown, Matsuyama — no relation — on Japan’s southern island of Shikoku. His father, an amateur golfer who now runs a practice range, introduced him to the game.He excelled at the sport as a teenager, and by 2011, he was the highest-placed amateur at the Masters. By 2017, he had won six PGA events and was ranked No. 2 in the world, the highest ever for a Japanese male golfer.In recent years, however, he seemed to have hit a slump, haunted by an uneven short game and a tendency to buckle under pressure, squandering commanding leads on the back nine’s putting greens.Through it all, Matsuyama has led a private existence focused on golf, while other athletes have racked up media appearances and corporate endorsements. He has earned praise for a work ethic that has sometimes led him to cap off a major tournament appearance with hours of work on his swing.He seems to have no hobbies or any interest in acquiring them. In 2017, he surprised the news media when he announced that his wife had given birth to the couple’s first child. Few even knew that he was married. No one had ever asked, he explained. When Donald J. Trump — a devotee of the game who was fond of conducting presidential business on the links — visited Japan in 2017, the prime minister at the time, Shinzo Abe, recruited Matsuyama for some golf diplomacy. The threesome did not keep score, and Matsuyama — true to his nature — had little to say about the experience.With his victory at Augusta, the expectations on Matsuyama will increase dramatically. Media attention is likely to reach a fever pitch in the coming weeks, and endorsement offers will flood in.Although golf has dipped in popularity in Japan in recent years, sports analysts are already speculating that Matsuyama’s win could help fuel a resurgence in the game, which has had renewed interest as a pandemic-friendly sport that makes it easy to maintain a healthy social distance. The Tokyo Olympics this summer will also focus attention on the game.Matsuyama chatted with Dustin Johnson, left, the 2020 Masters champion, after receiving his green jacket for the victory.Doug Mills/The New York TimesMunehiko Harada, president of Osaka University of Sport and Health Sciences and an expert on sports marketing, said he hoped that Matsuyama would use his victory to engage in more golf diplomacy, and that it would ameliorate the anti-Asian rhetoric and violence that have flared during the pandemic.“It would be great if the victory of Mr. Matsuyama would ease negative feelings toward Asians in the United States and create a kind of a momentum to respect each other,” he said, adding that he hoped President Biden would invite the golfer to the White House before a scheduled meeting with the Japanese prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, this week.In remarks to the news media, Suga praised Matsuyama’s performance, saying it “gave courage to and deeply moved people throughout Japan.”The pressure is already on for Matsuyama to notch another victory for the nation.“I don’t know his next goal, maybe win another major or achieve a grand slam, but for the Japan Golf Association, getting a gold medal at the Olympics would be wonderful news,” Yamanaka, the association’s secretary-general, said.News reports have speculated that Matsuyama will be drafted to light the Olympic caldron at the Games’ opening ceremony in July.Asked about the possibility at a news conference following his victory, Matsuyama demurred. Before he could commit to anything, he said, he would have to check his schedule.Hisako Ueno contributed reporting. More

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    Hideki Matsuyama is Golf's Quiet Superstar

    Shy, intense and obsessive about his golf game, Hideki Matsuyama has been quietly working toward his elite place in the sport for the past several years.AUGUSTA, Ga. — Hideki Matsuyama stood on the 18th green at Augusta National Golf Club on Sunday evening, a winner of the Masters Tournament. There had been no skyward leap, no cathartic, celebratory climb into his caddie’s arms.Just a hat tip and some hugs — an understated, in-the-moment recognition of a seminal achievement for Matsuyama, the first Asian-born golfer to claim a green jacket, and for golf in Japan.“When the final putt went in, I wasn’t really thinking of anything,” he said, adding that he was happy for his caddie, Shota Hayafuji, because it was his first win.“And then, it started sinking in,” Matsuyama said, “the joy of being a Masters champion.”It was characteristic Matsuyama, the man who used a rain delay on Saturday to play games on his cellphone in his car, the golfer who for years has been unsettling opponents while seeming set on avoiding the spotlight.“He doesn’t talk a whole lot, and he’s really solid,” Justin Thomas said after his round but before Matsuyama’s triumph.“I think he’s quite an intense character, actually, even though we don’t really see that,” said Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters winner who has known Matsuyama for years. “I mean, and obsessive about his game.”“He played like a winner needs to play,” said Xander Schauffele, who was paired with him for the final round on Sunday. “He was like a robot.”Just under six feet and weighing close to 200 pounds, Matsuyama had been lionized in Japan, where he began to learn golf from his father, long before he rose to No. 2 in the world, even before his victory at Augusta National, which earned him $2,070,000. He played in the Masters for the first time in 2011, when he tied for 27th and was crowned the low amateur. He shot a 68 in the third round then, a trip through the course that he said was significant to building the fortitude he would need outside the amateur ranks.“It gave me the confidence that I could play here,” he said. “I could play professional golf as a career.”He joined the PGA Tour in 2013 and won a few tournaments before a breakout 2017, when he topped the leaderboard at three events and placed second at the United States Open.It was that year when his penchant for privacy became clear: He announced that he had married months earlier and that he and his wife had had a child.“No one really asked me if I was married, or, you know, so I didn’t have to answer that question,” he said at a tournament news conference then. “But I felt that after the P.G.A. would be a good time, because our baby is born and I thought that would be a good time to let everyone know.”The shyness remains. Asked over the weekend how he felt about the coronavirus pandemic having kept more journalists away from the grounds at Augusta National, he replied: “I’m glad the media are here covering it, but it’s not my favorite thing to do, to stand and answer questions. And so with fewer media, it’s been a lot less stressful for me, and I’ve enjoyed this week.”But in the years before a full ascent into golf’s elite, particularly in Japan, Matsuyama was a promising young player in search of guidance, Scott remembered.“I found back then he was really interested to learn everything he could,” Scott recalled of his interactions with a younger Matsuyama during the 2013 Presidents Cup, the first of four in which Matsuyama would compete.“Just someone who’s got a desire to do well is what it looked like,” Scott said later. “He wasn’t afraid to ask the questions, and I think that shows. As timid as some people can be, the desire to do well overshadows the language barrier or being shy or anything like that.”Until Sunday, however, he had been in something of a slump, even though he was leading the Players Championship in 2020 when the rest of the tournament was canceled as the coronavirus gained a greater foothold in the United States.This year, Matsuyama said, he had a coach with him from Japan who was helping him to improve his game.“He’s been a great help, a great benefit,” Matsuyama said on Saturday. “Things that I was feeling in my swing, I could talk to him about that.” He added: “He always gives me good feedback. He has a good eye. It’s like having a mirror for my swing, and it’s been a great help for me. We worked hard, and hopefully now it’s all starting to come together.”On Sunday evening in Augusta, it did. More

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    Hideki Matsuyama of Japan Is the First Asian-Born Winner of the Masters

    Matsuyama led the final round from start to finish at Augusta National, becoming the first Asian-born man to win the Masters.AUGUSTA, Ga. — Hideki Matsuyama’s first swing in the final round of the 85th Masters was an unsightly banana-shaped slice that would have looked familiar on the nerve-racking first tee of any golf course in the world.Matsuyama, who entered Sunday’s fourth round with a four-shot lead, had not slept much Saturday night, and the walk Sunday afternoon from the practice range to the golf course was more disquieting.“When I got to the first tee it hit me,” Matsuyama said. “I was really nervous.”But Matsuyama hunted down his wayward opening drive in the left woods and decisively chose an intrepid course, smashing his ball from a bed of wispy pine straw through a slender gap between two trees. Matsuyama’s caddie, Shota Hayafuji, yelped, “Woo,” which elicited a toothy grin from the typically undemonstrative Matsuyama.Matsuyama chipped a shot on the 18th hole from the bunker.Doug Mills/The New York TimesEven though he bogeyed the first hole, the tone for his day was set.A former teenage golf prodigy in Japan who has long been expected to break through on golf’s biggest stage, Matsuyama, 29, fearlessly charged the daunting Augusta National Golf Club layout on Sunday to build a commanding lead. Even with three unsteady bogeys in the closing holes, he persevered with a gutsy final-round 73 to win the 2021 Masters by one stroke and become the tournament’s first Asian-born champion.Matsuyama, who finished 10 under par for the tournament, is also the first Japanese man to win a major golf championship. Will Zalatoris finished second, and Xander Schauffele and Jordan Spieth tied for third place at seven under par.Matsuyama’s groundbreaking victory will make him a national hero in golf-crazy Japan, which has had a rich history of producing world-class male golfers who have come close to winning a major championship over the past several decades but have fallen short. Two Japanese women have won major golf championships. Matsuyama’s breakthrough comes at a time of unrest over racially targeted violence against Asian and Asian-Americans.Matsuyama started off the day 11 under par and remained in front the entire day.Doug Mills/The New York TimesThe new face of Japanese golf is shy and tight-lipped, so much so that when he was married and had a child in 2017 he kept it hidden from the golf world for seven months. Sunday, after receiving his ceremonial green jacket beside the 18th green, Matsuyama stood motionless, his arms at his sides as news photographers took his picture. Urged to look celebratory, he raised both arms overhead and meekly smiled. Emboldened by the winsome reaction it elicited, Matsuyama widened his grin and jabbed his fists in the air twice.Led to a news conference, Matsuyama was asked if he was now the greatest golfer in Japanese history.“I cannot say that I am the greatest,” he answered through an interpreter. “However, I’m the first to win a major, and if that’s the bar, then I set it.”Will Zalatoris, a Masters rookie, finished second in his tournament debut.Doug Mills/The New York TimesMatsuyama was more interested in answering what effect his victory might have on young Japanese golfers.“Up until now, we haven’t had a major champion in Japan, maybe a lot of young golfers thought it was an impossibility,” he said. “Hopefully this will set an example that it is possible and if they set their mind to it, they can do it, too.”Matsuyama, who had the low score for an amateur at the 2011 Masters, was ranked as high as second in the world four years ago, but suddenly fell into a slump. Until Sunday, he had not won a tournament since 2017 and his ranking had slipped to 25th worldwide.But after a sparkling 65 in the third round Saturday — he had an eagle and four birdies in his final eight holes — Matsuyama came into the final round with a heathy cushion atop the leaderboard. He was steady at the start on Sunday, even after the opening-hole bogey. He rebounded with a birdie at the second, then reeled off five pars and cruised into the back nine with a comfortable five-stroke lead.But as often happens on a Masters Sunday, odd, unforeseen things ensued.At the par-5 15th hole, Matsuyama sized up a second shot in the fairway that was 227 yards from the flagstick. He said he “flushed” a 4-iron but his golf ball rocketed off the green and scooted into the water behind the hole. It was no small misstep, not with his playing partner Schauffele about to birdie his fourth consecutive hole. Matsuyama did not lose his poise or persistence. Taking a penalty stroke, he prudently chipped to the fringe of the green and two-putted for a bogey.Schauffele was trailing by only two strokes when the duo stepped on the 16th tee. Still chasing the leader, Schauffele said he felt he had to go for another birdie, but his aggressive tee shot was short of the green and trickled into a pond.Schauffele said the notoriously swirling Augusta National winds double-crossed him, a familiar rejoinder, and likely an accurate one.“I hit a good shot; it turned out bad,” Schauffele, who made a triple bogey on the hole, said. “I’ll sleep OK tonight — I might be tossing around a little.”The turn of events made the Masters rookie Zalatoris the closest pursuer to Matsuyama, especially after Zalatoris made a lengthy, downhill par putt on the 18th hole to finish the final round at nine under par, just two strokes behind Matsuyama.With two holes left to play, Matsuyama hit a brilliant drive in the middle of the 17th fairway, launched a perfect wedge shot to the middle of the green and two-putted for par. At the 18th hole, he hit another perfect drive but his approach shot faded and landed in the greenside bunker to the right of the green. His recovery from the sand stopped six feet from the hole, but two putts still gave him the championship.The second place finish by Zalatoris, who is in his first year on the PGA Tour, will raise his profile in the golf community considerably, especially in combination with his result at the 2020 United States Open where he tied for sixth. Leaving the 18th hole Sunday, Zalatoris, 24, received a standing ovation from the fans ringing the green.“Absolute dream,” Zalatoris said. “I’ve been dreaming about it for 20 years.” He added: “I think the fact that I’m frustrated I finished second in my third major says something. Obviously, my two majors as a pro, I finished sixth and runner-up. I know if I keep doing what I doing, I’m going to have a really good chance in the future.”Matsuyama also received a hearty, long ovation as he left the 18th green on Sunday. When he sank his final putt and the victory was assured, Matsuyama, unlike most golfers in that situation, had no visible reaction.“I really wasn’t thinking anything,” Matsuyama acknowledged. “Then it started to sink in, the joy of being a Masters champion. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like, but what a thrill and honor it will be for me to take the green jacket back to Japan.” More

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    How Putting on a Mask Raised Naomi Osaka’s Voice

    #masthead-section-label, #masthead-bar-one { display: none }Race and PolicingFacts on Walter Wallace Jr. CaseFacts on Breonna Taylor CaseFacts on Daniel Prude CaseFacts on George Floyd CaseNaomi Osaka after winning the U.S. Open.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York TimesSkip to contentSkip to site indexThe Great ReadHow Putting on a Mask Raised Naomi Osaka’s VoiceShe used her time away from competing during the pandemic to reflect on the world and her place within it. When the time came to speak, she approached it in her own distinct way.Naomi Osaka after winning the U.S. Open.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York TimesSupported byContinue reading the main storyDec. 16, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ETAs usual, Naomi Osaka’s postmatch interview struck an emotional chord.It was two years after she had burst to the fore with a moving win over Serena Williams in the 2018 United States Open women’s singles final, where she had stood small and unguarded, crying in front of an audience that had been rooting for her opponent.Now, in September, after winning the U.S. Open for a second time, Osaka was asked by the ESPN analyst Tom Rinaldi to explain why she had entered each of her seven matches wearing a face mask bearing the name of a Black victim of racist violence.“What was the message you wanted to send?” Rinaldi asked Osaka.“Well, what was the message that you got?” she replied. “I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”Her answer, volleyed back at him reflexively, precise and a bit arch, revealed a sharply different woman from the one who had withered under excruciating boos at Arthur Ashe Stadium after her first U.S. Open title.As her star has grown, Osaka has described herself to interviewers as shy and quiet, though her older sister, Mari, likens her to the character Stewie Griffin, from the animated TV show “The Family Guy,” whose malevolent genius is subverted by the constraints of being a baby. That demeanor was sufficient as Osaka navigated the world as an effervescent upstart.When it came to opening up about nearly any deeply felt topic, Osaka used to let the words kink up inside her like an unspooled garden hose. But in 2020, Osaka found her voice and the self-possession to speak up when and how she saw fit, a massive leap for a global superstar who once felt too self-conscious to exhort herself even on the court. With time to engage with civil rights protests because of the pandemic’s pause of tennis, Osaka found the space to unravel her thoughts to convey an urgent and unequivocal demand for change.In doing so, she came to be as precise and efficient in her protest as she has been in her tennis, offering up her version of soft power: deploying bold activism shaped by her unique understanding of the world and her place in it.Osaka eschewed the playbook of other tennis stars.There’s a faction in tennis that has long wanted to hear a more polished version of Osaka.“Forever, whether it was the WTA Tour or other interested parties, everyone was always putting pressure on me to get Naomi media-trained,” Stuart Duguid, her agent, said. “I always thought that would be a mistake for her. That’s the last thing we want to contrive.”After Osaka haltingly riffed through what she called “the worst acceptance speech of all time,” at Indian Wells in March 2018, that push ramped up with executives letting Duguid know they had not been charmed.Osaka posed with the championship trophy at Indian Wells in 2018.Credit…Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesStill, he argued that Osaka’s candor made her a star whom fans could connect with. Displaying the mischief and joy of anybody’s teenage sister in her interviews, Osaka racked up deals that proved Duguid right. She rejected prestige for prestige’s sake, bucking the standard luxury watch and car endorsements that mark “making it” in tennis.She instead aligned with brands that made sense for a Gen Z global citizen: She added deals with Sony PlayStation and Airbnb. She took on equity partnerships with performance brands and companies like BodyArmor SportWater and Hyperice, and started fashion collaborations with Comme des Garçons and Adeam, labels coveted not at country clubs but on street style roundups.The haul beefed up her 2019 earnings to $37 million, a figure Forbes estimated was the most any woman had earned as an athlete in one year.In what she termed “a U-shaped” 2019, though, Osaka’s rawness and honesty conveyed the depths of her frustration over how much she struggled after her rapid-fire Grand Slam wins. After a 16-match win streak at Grand Slam events, she was upset at the 2019 French Open in her third match and lost in a first-round stunner at Wimbledon. After Wimbledon, she faced reporters who presented her with variations of the same question — what’s wrong with you?“There’s answers to questions that you guys ask that I still haven’t figured out yet,” she curtly replied to one, during a news conference she left by telling a moderator, “I feel like I’m about to cry.”It was a troublesome showing — her postmatch interviews felt like eavesdropping on a doctor’s stethoscope. She offered only sadness and frustration, with no spin.The year mercifully ended with Osaka’s hiring a new coach, Wim Fissette, an analytics-minded Belgian who had worked with other No. 1s, Simona Halep, Kim Clijsters and, most recently, Victoria Azarenka.When she was ousted in the round of 32 at the Australian Open, Fissette and Osaka pried open a vein of communication. To that point, they had developed a polite repartee about the technical parts of her game, but stopped short of talking about her mind-set entering matches.“She’s not a person that you get to know and she tells you everything you need to know,” Fissette said.Osaka revealed in a come-to-Jesus conversation weeks after the loss that she had told him things were just fine when they weren’t. She had assumed an extreme amount of pressure to win in Australia and wasn’t mentally ready to deal with a match that didn’t go her way. Osaka agreed to open up, realizing that sharing her feelings did not challenge her normal confidence in her game and in her physicality.“I don’t necessarily need that much in terms of strategy, and I feel like my game is always good enough to win,” she said in an email interview in November. “But of course you can’t play your A game every day, so it’s nice to know that I have some information on my opponent in case I need it. That definitely helps to relax me going into matches.”‘I was able to take more personal time.’Of course, her tennis wasn’t tested much in the months that followed because the pandemic shut down the WTA Tour in mid-March along with the rest of major sports leagues. Osaka used the downtime to consider the world from her vantage point. “I was able to focus on things outside of tennis and live my life outside of tennis in a way I never have and likely never will again,” she said. “I was able to take more personal time, more time for self-reflection, more time to understand and witness the world around me.”Tendrils of info on how she spent those months and how they changed her have seeped into her social media accounts where, between family dance-offs, she posted images of Frantz Fanon’s book “The Wretched of the Earth” and appeared with her boyfriend, the rapper Cordae Dunston, on workout bikes in a picture snapped by Colin Kaepernick. Amid Netflix binges and at-home workouts, and learning to cook her favorite of her mother Tamaki’s recipes, Osaka spent time reading about how Haiti became the first Black-led republic in the world. That was a suggestion from Leonard Francois, her father, to learn about her ancestors.Without the tunnel vision of a tennis schedule, Osaka showed the effects of the psyche-scarring onslaught of violence against Black Americans. In the days after George Floyd was killed by the Minneapolis police in May, she flew with Dunston to protests there and later wrote an opinion piece for Esquire challenging that society “take on systemic racism head-on, that the police protect us and don’t kill us.”Though Osaka’s assertion of each part of her identity — Japanese, Haitian, raised for a time in the United States — has given her profitable endorsement lanes, she has often highlighted her Blackness when commentators minimize it. That erasure has happened in small ways, as when a TV interviewer after a 2019 Australian Open match gave a shout-out to her Japanese supporters there. She thanked them, then gave “big ups” to Haiti.Her Blackness has been overlooked in more troubling circumstances, too.After the 2018 Open win, an Australian newspaper cartoon depicted the final scene with Williams in racist caricature — mammy-esque facial features frozen in twisted rage — which the artist defended against backlash by saying, “I drew her as an African-American woman.” Nearly lost in the controversy was his rendering of Osaka: pale, with blond, straight hair and nearly unrecognizable. In 2019, her sponsor Nissin pulled an ad in which a cartoon of Osaka had skin and hair many shades lighter than she had in real life.Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka after the 2018 U.S. Open final.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York TimesThat same year, a Japanese comedy duo said Osaka needed “some bleach” and was “too sunburned,” remarks for which they later apologized without naming Osaka specifically.With Osaka cut off from IRL social touchstones and without access to her day job, her TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms provided the most candid way for her to speak up as she had pledged. When she tweeted her support for the Black Lives Matter movement in June and encouraged participation in a B.L.M. protest in Osaka, Japan, she faced social media trolls who called her a terrorist and a widespread backlash from Japanese people who viewed the issue as an outsider’s cause.“I think for people in America, the B.L.M. movement is something we have all started to talk about and talk about openly,” Osaka said, “yet globally, it’s not as common, and I hope that changed.”The cultural anthropologist John G. Russell sees Osaka’s emergence in Japan as a significant stride given the country’s long history of touting its monoculture, but one that has opened her and her sponsors up to racist vitriol from some people who view mixed-race Japanese figures as a threat to the national identity.The notoriously savage Twitter user Yu Darvish, a Major League Baseball pitcher who is Japanese and Iranian, and the N.B.A. star Rui Hachimura (Japanese and Beninese) have also used their platforms to clap back and to promote social justice.“They are stepping up to address issues that the Japanese media would prefer not to confront,” Russell said in an email interview, cautioning that though their efforts have increased visibility in Japan, their message “may serve to reinforce the view that hafu are themselves outsiders and not full members of Japanese society.” (“Hafu” is a term used for Japanese people of mixed-race backgrounds.)When tennis returned, Osaka put her protest front and center.The day before Osaka played her first match at the Western & Southern Open in August, Jacob Blake was shot in the back by the police in Kenosha, Wis.By her quarterfinal match, renewed protests had reached American pro sports, with teams in the N.B.A., the W.N.B.A. and M.L.B. opting to stop competing on Aug. 26.Osaka came off the court that day planning to withdraw from the tournament. No call with a players’ union, no team meeting. Duguid, her agent, asked her to hold off announcing for 10 minutes or so while he scrambled to give her sponsors and the tournament a heads-up. That done, she dropped a meticulously framed statement to her various social feeds that explained her stance.“Before I am an athlete, I am a black woman,” she wrote. “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.”Officials paused the Western & Southern Open rather than have Osaka withdraw from it to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake. She finished as runner-up, after an injury caused her to pull out of the final.Credit…Jason Szenes/EPA, via ShutterstockWithin minutes, the WTA’s chief executive, Steve Simon, called Duguid to salvage her participation. Simon, along with other tennis and tournament officials, eventually agreed to pause the tournament.“I have never, ever experienced the quickness and the united front for these leaders to come together on what was a very, very critical moment,” Stacey Allaster, the tournament director for the U.S. Open, said.It was an unmistakable display of Osaka’s power within the sport, an authority that is still heavily predicated upon winning.As she entered the U.S. Open, so much had changed for her personally and in the world. Fissette said no player he had coached carried Osaka’s glee and determination entering a Grand Slam event. With a strong showing at the Western & Southern (she advanced to the final, but then withdrew with an injury), a more open relationship with her team and a new expectation that her matches might get tough, she came into the U.S. Open confident enough to have seven face masks made — one for each round needed to win a championship.“I wouldn’t travel to a tournament without expecting to play seven matches, and initially, when I thought about the best way to raise awareness and honor voices that had been silenced, it was more something I had to do on a personal level, for myself,” Osaka said. “I didn’t feel that with all that I was seeing in the world around me I could just show up and play as if nothing had happened, as if lives were not unjustly taken.”As she bounded into Ashe Stadium on Sept. 1 for her opening match, a plume of hair and a bulky headphone tiara framed her mask bearing the name Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old medical worker who was killed in March during a raid of her apartment in Louisville, Ky.Cheryl Cooky, a sociology professor at Purdue who studies gender and sexuality, saw the quiet but impossible-to-ignore protest as contributing powerfully to the iconography of athlete activism.Collectively, she said, we tend to remember the visual shorthand of John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s gloved black fists at the 1968 Olympics, or Kaepernick’s kneeling, rather than women who have been at the vanguard of protest movements. Women like Ariyana Smith, the Knox College basketball player who in 2014 foreshadowed future demonstrations in college and pro sports by protesting the killing of Michael Brown by the police in Ferguson, Mo.“The protests that are happening in the sports space are by Black women athletes, but it’s the men who become these iconic figures,” said Cooky, co-author of “No Slam Dunk: Gender, Sport and the Unevenness of Social Change.” Osaka’s protest, she said, was visible enough to stand alongside the most memorable acts.Osaka wore a mask in honor of Breonna Taylor as she celebrated defeating Misaki Doi in the first round of the U.S. Open.Credit…Frank Franklin/Associated PressThe imagery focused a laser beam of attention on Osaka during the most arduous tournament this year, during which she could not have her normal squad of family members and friends on hand for a postmatch hug. Still, positive reactions wormed their way into the Open bubble.The Greek player Stefanos Tsitsipas, who had texted Osaka after both tours paused in August and asked her to explain to him the Black Lives Matter movement, watched matches at the Open while wearing a B.L.M. T-shirt. Osaka regularly found earnest messages from fans all over the world on her social feeds. In an interview on ESPN, she was shown a video in which the families of Ahmaud Arbery and Tamir Rice thanked her for remembering their loved ones.“Once I saw that so many people were talking, those seven masks acted as more of an inspiration for me than added pressure,” Osaka said. “I am not really one to lose composure, but that moment left me speechless and quite emotional.”By now we know how that tournament turned out, how Osaka rallied from down a set and a break to defeat Azarenka, and then the retort to Rinaldi. The triumph left her “completely exhausted — physically and mentally,” and she declined a daytime talk show blitz as an encore.Instead, she wrapped herself the next day in what resembled a shortened version of a karabela dress, a traditional Haitian dress for celebrations, and a head wrap for her official champions portrait. Later, she and her family went to Haiti to reconnect with the past, a trip that she called “an amazing and emotional experience to cherish.”Now, two months removed from her victory and with the year coming to a close, Osaka still cannot give voice to the specifics of how her life, career and goals have changed. “I think that’s something that I won’t have a firm answer to for a while,” she said.When she does, she’ll let us know.AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More