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Semi-finals Suspended In New York As Osaka Makes A Stand Against Racism

By Alix Ramsay

It is Thursday morning and the match courts of the Billie Jean King Tennis National Center are silent. There will be no play today as a show of support for those fighting for equality and justice in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha Wisconsin, on August 23.

The decision to suspend play came late on Wednesday night and was prompted by the sudden withdrawal of Naomi Osaka from the tournament. The semi-finals of the Western and Southern Open will now be held on Friday.

Osaka had won her quarter-final against Anett Kontaveit on Wednesday afternoon and came into her press conference at 4.30pm to talk about forehands, backhands and general tennis matters. There seemed nothing unusual about her demeanour; there were no indications of what was to come.

But later that night, after the news emerged that the Milwaukee Bucks had refused to take the court in their NBA playoff game against Orlando Magic, Osaka took to Twitter and announced that she would take no further part in the Western and Southern Open. The NBA cancelled the rest of the night’s games; when Osaka posted her Tweet, she was still standing alone on the tennis stage.

Making the point clear that “before I am an athlete, I am a black woman” she said she was sickened by the repeated cases of police violence against black people.

“Watching the continued genocide of Black people at the hand of the police is honestly making me sick to my stomach,” she wrote.

Within two hours, the tournament, with the backing of all the relevant organisations, had cancelled its Thursday schedule in support of Osaka’s decision.

An official statement read: “As a sport, tennis is collectively taking a stance against racial inequality and social injustice that once again has been thrust to the forefront in the United States. The USTA, ATP Tour, and WTA have decided to recognize this moment in time by pausing tournament play at the Western & Southern Open on Thursday, August 27. Play will resume on Friday, August 28.”

Osaka’s mother is Japanese, her father is from Haiti and while she represents Japan, she has lived most of her life in South Florida. Her understanding of racism, then, has a truly international background. And, not for the first time, she felt the need to speak out.

She used social media to voice her feelings after the killing of George Floyd in May. She even wrote a first person piece for the Esquire website about racism making the point that events in the United States were no longer a domestic issue, they were now a  cause of global concern and outrage.

“Today’s protests have momentum and promise,” she wrote in June. “This time, there is a different energy. Different faces are involved in the movement. It’s gone global—from Oslo to Osaka, from Tallahassee to Tokyo, protests have included people of all races and ethnicities. There were even Black Lives Matter marches in Japan–something many of us would never have expected or imagined possible.”

Not that Osaka imagined that her unilateral move this week would make a huge difference; she just wanted to make her views known and for her personal protest to be made public.

“I don’t expect anything drastic to happen with me not playing,” she wrote on Twitter, “but if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport I consider that a step in the right direction.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Milos Raonic who found himself in the unenviable position of being the last player on site as Osaka’s decision became a major news story.

He had just beaten Flip Krajinovic in a gruelling three setter that lasted almost three hours. But nobody was interested in that; the press pack wanted to know his views on protests, boycotts and Black Lives Matter. Did he think he should follow Osaka’s example and pull out?

“I think to really make a difference, it has to be a banding together of athletes,” he said. “Right now, I’m 30 in the world. Many people aren’t going to care what I do. But it would be the same thing if a fifth guy on a team stepped out for a game, like Kyrie sitting out, I think it makes a difference and it makes a point, but clearly is not getting the job done.

“I think it’s not about the guys that are left in this tournament. I think it’s about everybody being on the same page. If three guys, four guys step up tomorrow, but everything continues as normal on Monday when the US Open starts, you know, have we taken that next small step after not playing the first day? That’s the thing.

Milos Raonic of Canada in action against Filip Krajinovic of Serbia, was the last player on site Wednesday evening.

“It’s not just about doing one small thing and saying, hey, I did my part. It’s about continuously pursuing what you feel is just and right. And I think it has to be a conversation with our whole group and our whole representative players and, yeah, coaches. And ATP staff should be involved in this, as well. It’s not just about players.

“I think it’s not about just taking one small step and being, like, hey, I have done my part. It’s about taking a small step and looking to take the next small step. I think that’s where the issue is.

“And a lot of people opting out in the NBA, for example, I think that was our first small step. Wearing the shirt, speaking out about it. And I think this is their next step.

“I think we, as players, as the ATP and the WTA Tour, need to look at what is our next step.”

An hour later, Thursday’s play had been suspended and Osaka found herself surrounded by the USTA, the men’s and women’s tours and by Milos Raonic – not that she would have necessarily expected him to be her first champion – as she stood up for equality and justice. Tennis had taken its first small step.

Black Lives Matter signage is seen in Grandstand at the Western and Southern Open at the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York.

Thursday, 2.30pm, EST. Naomi Osaka update

After the Western and Southern Open suspended play on Thursday, it seems that Naomi Osaka will play her semi-final against Elise Mertens after all. According to the official order of play just released, she will be ready to compete again at 11am, EST, on the Grandstand Court on Friday.

Not that this is Osaka backing down from her original position but, rather, an acknowledgement that her protest has been made and that the rest of tennis has joined her in that protest. Now, as an active player in the tournament, she has the platform and the audience to address an even bigger audience.