LONDON (Reuters) – Women’s tennis is very fortunate to have U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka as its new figurehead, according to one of the sport’s greatest trailblazers Billie Jean King.
Not only did the 22-year-old Japanese player win a second title at Flushing Meadows last week, she also became a champion for equality, taking a lead in highlighting racial injustice.
The 76-year-old King likens Osaka’s off-court stance to that of the Original Nine, a group of players led by King who fought tirelessly to start a professional women’s tennis tour, which in turn led to the creation of the WTA in 1973.
“She is already huge on and off the court. She is very humble and really looks at you when you talk to her and takes in the information and comes up with an authentic response,” King said of Osaka, whose mother is Japanese and father Haitian.
“In many ways Naomi is a product of the Original Nine. Think about that, she is what we fought for. That if you’re good enough you will have a place to compete, wherever you are from.
“Naomi is a product of our wishes and dreams.”
Osaka instigated a one-day shutdown of the Western and Southern Open the week before the U.S. Open, pulling out of her semi-final in protest at the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the city of Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Before each of her seven matches at the U.S. Open she wore face masks printed with the names of Black Americans who have suffered racial injustice in the U.S.
Already a sporting icon, Osaka’s fight for equality has focussed even more attention on her, but King believes she can shoulder the responsibility of being a voice for tennis.
“She seems to be able to compartmentalise things and she cares deeply about what is happening around her and that will keep her focussed,” King told Reuters ahead of an ITF announcement that the Fed Cup was being re-named the Billie Jean King Cup in honour of her achievements on and off court.
“She is fantastic for the sport. But don’t forget Serena (Williams) and Venus also spoke out and continue to speak out for women of colour and Venus fought for equal prize money.
“People forget because they go on to the new one. But Naomi is really special and I really think she will be an amazing leader through the years because she cares.
“We are very fortunate to have her in our sport.”
King has long wanted the WTA and men’s ATP Tour to combine to create one body, and has watched recent developments in which world number one Novak Djokovic has formed a breakaway players’ union with interest.
She believes the sport’s various organisations should unite.
“I’ve always been a teams person,” King said. “I think together we are stronger. My wish will always be that we are one association. I’m not sure about the Djokovic split. I’m not sure it’s going to happen. But I just hope the ATP and WTA get together. It would be great. This could drive it, I don’t know.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Christian Radnedge)