Past and present WTA stars have used their platforms to speak on social issues this week. Media appearances by two-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka, 1990 Wimbledon runner-up Zina Garrison and 18-time major winner Martina Navratilova have underlined their support of activism both within and beyond the tennis community.
In a powerful Esquire op-ed, former World No.1 Osaka discusses how the combination of the Covid-19 pause and the protests against the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis have spurred her into both thought and action. "I flew to Minneapolis with my boyfriend days after the murder to pay our respects and have our voices heard on the streets," writes the 22-year-old. "We grieved with the people of St. Paul and protested peacefully."
Tennis star @naomiosaka on why she flew to Minneapolis days after George Floyd's death—and why being "not racist" isn't enough. https://t.co/MHCRVYUSxm— Esquire (@esquire) July 1, 2020
This was not enough, though. "When I came back to Los Angeles, I signed petitions, I protested, and I donated, like many of us," Osaka continues. "But I kept asking myself what can I do to make this world a better place for my children?"
Osaka's thoughts have been shaped by her own experience. "As long as I can remember, people have struggled to define me," she writes. "I’ve never really fit into one description - but people are so fast to give me a label. Is she Japanese? American? Haitian? Black? Asian? Well, I’m all of these things together at the same time."
I hate when random people say athletes shouldn’t get involved with politics and just entertain. Firstly, this is a human rights issue. Secondly, what gives you more right to speak than me? By that logic if you work at IKEA you are only allowed to talk about the “GRÖNLID” 🤷🏽♀️?— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) June 4, 2020
Osaka also discusses her perspective as a Japanese player representing a "very homogeneous country", and expresses pride at the thought that she may have inspired a biracial girl in Japan. "I really hope that the playground is a friendlier place for her now that she can point to a role model and be proud of who she is - and dream big," concludes Osaka.
Many of Osaka's thoughts will be familiar to former World No.4 Garrison, who was interviewed by The Guardian on the 30th anniversary of her career-best Grand Slam run to the Wimbledon final in 1990, in which the American defeated Monica Seles 3-6, 6-3, 9-7 and Stefanie Graf 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 back-to-back in the quarterfinals and semifinals.
Zina Garrison: 'Even when I was world No 4 I still had no clothing deal' https://t.co/2iMLQwO3TN— The Guardian (@guardian) June 28, 2020
Garrison reveals that even when she reached the Top 5, she still had no clothing sponsor. Indeed, during her Wimbledon run, she played in clothes that Navratilova had gifted her until signing a deal with Reebok prior to the final. While active, her policy was to let her tennis do the talking: "We can't focus on what someone's going to give us or not give us," she recalls. "All we can do is be there for [so long] that you can't deny it."
Now, the 56-year-old is embracing the chance to speak out - and has emphasized her support for the Black Lives Matter campaign. "When I say not keeping the peace, I don't want the world to be destroyed - but I mean we have to keep that pressure on," says Garrison. "We've got to keep the pressure on because what some people want us to do is start forgetting about it so they can go back to some sense of normalcy."
1990 what a year for me and Martina 😋 https://t.co/t0rWoCiSpE— Zina Garrison (@beyondthegold) June 28, 2020
Navratilova, who defeated Garrison in the 1990 Wimbledon final to win her 18th and final Grand Slam singles trophy, remembers what her former rival went through well. "It was a sad commentary on what players of color - particularly women - go through," the nine-time Wimbledon champion told BBC Radio 4's Today show. Navratilova also revealed that gifting Garrison clothes during that tournament had been borne out of her own experience of inequality: "It was my own clothing line [with Nike]," she says. "I also had a hard time getting a sponsor. Hers was because she was Black, mine was because I was gay. Even as the No.1 player in the world I had a hard time getting sponsorships - so I made my own clothing line."
In light of this, Navratilova is heartened by the current generation of tennis stars' willingness to speak out, highlighting the Black Lives Matter activism of 16-year-old Coco Gauff as well. "It's essential people get involved, because they're seeing how much politics can affect their lives and their freedoms," states the WTA Legend.
"Sports has always been at the forefront of social change and it can be that again, with Black Lives Matter and equality for all. Tennis has had its share of obstacles but we've been at the forefront of social change - and with Coco Gauff leading the charge, we're still there."
Read more: Billie Jean King on athlete activism: 'Tell your story'