Before she begins defense of her U.S. Open title next week in Queens, Naomi Osaka helped refurbish her own childhood tennis courts in the borough.
On Thursday, the four-time Grand Slam champion celebrated the unveil of the newly refurbished childhood courts at Detective Keith L. Williams Park in Jamaica, Queens. In 2020, BODYARMOR, one of Osaka’s corporate sponsors and the official sports drink of the U.S. Open, committed to refurbishing the tennis courts as a way to inspire young athletes in the local Queens community where Osaka got her start. The event included a tennis clinic for kids where they ran through several drills working on groundstrokes, volleys and serves.
The brand also collaborated with Naomi’s sister, Mari Osaka, on the development of artwork bordering the courts that incorporates colors and symbols that are meaningful to Naomi. New York graffiti artist Mast contributed the artwork.
“I’ve seen first-hand how playing sports can have a positive impact on kid’s lives,” said Osaka in a statement. “It’s been extremely gratifying to collaborate with BODYARMOR on revitalizing the very same tennis courts that I grew up playing on. And the fact that BODYARMOR is also a Queens based company makes this initiative even cooler and more meaningful to me. The update to these courts means so much – local high schools use these for practice and competitions, the community comes here to play – the benefits will be long lasting.”
Osaka is the No. 3 seed at the Open behind world No. 1 Ash Barty and No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka. She will begin play against former U.S. Open junior champion Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic, whom she also beat in the first round of the 2020 Australian Open.
Osaka, who came from a set down to beat Victoria Azarenka in last year’s final, is in the bottom half of the draw along with Azarenka, Sabalenka, No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina and No. 8 seed Barbora Krejcikova.
Last year, she wore seven masks in seven matches to draw attention to African-American victims of police violence. This year, she called attention to mental health issues by pulling out of the French Open over a refusal to do daily press conferences. She then skipped Wimbledon before returning at the Tokyo Olympics, where she lost in the third round. She came back this month to the North American hard courts and donated her prize money from Cincinnati to victims of the Haitian earthquake.
“Again, [Osaka is] leading the way,” ESPN’s Pam Shriver said this week on a conference call. “Not that athletes and mental health haven’t been discussed, whether it’s Michael Phelps, other athletes that have struggled way before the pandemic.”
In terms of her chances on the court, seven-time major champion John McEnroe thinks Osaka can capture a third U.S. Open but needs to win a close one along the way to build confidence.
“I think she’s the best hard court player in the world,” McEnroe said. “Obviously all this stuff that’s been going on can’t possibly sort of benefit her. Your question is can she overcome it, is she in the mindset to overcome it mentally and physically having not played that much, basically stepped away from the French and Wimbledon, then all that accompanied her being in Japan, lighting the caldron, et cetera, then losing.
“She needs to win a close one. She was double match point down against Muguruza at the Australian, pulled that out. Then she got on a roll. I think if she’s going to do well, it’s going to have to be one of those situations…
“If she gets through one of those matches, I think she could win it. I also think there’s probably 10 other girls that could win it also.”