Naomi Osaka has been named The Associated Press’ Female Athlete of the Year, becoming the first Japanese athlete to hold the title.
AP named LeBron James its Male Athlete of the Year. Previous honorees include Tiger Woods, Simone Biles, Michael Phelps and Serena Williams.
Osaka, who lives in the U.S. and is the daughter of a Haitian father and a Japanese mother, drew worldwide attention in 2018 when she won her first U.S. Open against Williams, her childhood idol.
Despite winning her second U.S. Open, becoming a brand ambassador and starring in an upcoming manga, Osaka has also faced critics who don’t consider her to be truly Japanese because of her biracial background.
She is soft-spoken in interviews but has not shied away from controversy. An advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement, Osaka has competed while wearing face masks bearing the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other unarmed African Americans who have been killed by police.
Writing in The New York Times on Dec. 21, Osaka cited James as an inspiration because he refused to bow to critics who say he should “shut up and dribble” and not politicize sports.
“Just because we are athletes doesn’t mean we are unaffected by what happens around the country, nor does it obligate us to keep our mouths shut,” she said. “Sports have never been apolitical, and as long as they continue to be played by human beings, they won’t be.”
Osaka cited other athletes who have stood up for causes, from boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who was jailed for refusing to be drafted during the Vietnam War because of his religious beliefs, to Coco Gauff, the youngest player ranked in the top 100 by the WTA, who is a supporter of Black Lives Matter.
Billie Jean King, a 12-time Grand Slam singles title winner, praised Osaka in an interview with AP for positioning “herself as a leader not only in women’s tennis but in all of sports and a force for change in our society.”
“She successfully completed the difficult task of taking excellence in sports performance and using that platform to succeed outside of sports on a much bigger stage,” King said. “She ignited a conversation on social justice, the results of which were bigger than tennis, larger than sports, and in doing so raised the bar for all those who want to leverage the gifts and talents we have to make a difference in our world.”
For her athleticism and activism, Osaka was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year alongside James, Breanna Stewart, Patrick Mahomes and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. She also appeared on the cover of Vogue.