Naomi Osaka's next challenge? Stop apologizing

·Yahoo Sports Columnist
·5 min read

As I read Naomi Osaka's revealing statement to the rest of us, which in a lot of ways seems like a pep talk to herself, I found myself agreeing with line after line, even thinking, "Yes! Good for you!" on a couple of occasions.

And then I got toward the end, and Osaka apologized to those who don't think that "[giving] my heart to everything I can" isn't good enough.

And I realized there's still so much work we have to do. 

Women saying "I'm sorry" needlessly has become something of a crusade for me in recent months. We shouldn't be sorry for speaking up against injustice or sexism or someone else's "top 5 pop stars ever" list, we shouldn't be sorry for walking in a door at the same time someone else is walking out of it, we shouldn't be sorry for electing to maximize our earnings and exposure in whatever fashion we choose, as Osaka does. 

It's not just that men don't feel compelled to apologize for those things in the way that women do, it's that too often we're minimizing ourselves for someone else's comfort, asking forgiveness for our mere presence.

As she begins her pursuit of another Grand Slam (she dominated her opening-round match at the U.S. Open), Osaka owes no one any apology for choosing herself and her own well-being in recent months. She owes no one an explanation for why she has agreed to photo shoots for magazines or capsule collection partnerships with companies like Levi's, but bristles at the idea of news conferences. 

Really, she didn't even owe us the beautiful, vulnerable words she posted to her social media pages on Sunday.

But she offered them, underscoring again that she is willing to offer her thoughts on things — deeply personal things — in her own time and her own way. It just might not be in front of a seemingly hostile crowd of tennis media members, some of whom are bent on knocking her at every turn (apparently nothing has changed there in the 20-plus years since the Williams sisters rose to prominence). 

"I've been asking myself why do I feel the way I do and I realize one of the reasons is because internally I think I'm never good enough," Osaka wrote. "I've never told myself that I've done a good job but I do know I constantly tell myself that I suck or I could do better.

"I know in the past some people have called me humble but if I consider it I think I'm extremely self-deprecating."

Some athletes have their own version of feeling like they're not good enough and use it as fuel to get better, but it isn't always healthy. Of course Osaka can improve, as a tennis player and in any other areas of her life she deems could use refinement, but constantly putting yourself down in the voice you hear most — your own — is dangerous and damaging. 

Not to mention that by almost any measure, Osaka the athlete certainly doesn't suck. She's a four-time Grand Slam singles winner. 

Beyond that, in the things that matter far more, she presents as a fantastic human being. Her empathy, her philanthropy, her activism have impacted many. 

Her words Sunday will ring familiar to countless people who read them, who will see their own moments of self-doubt or their own fight to silence their inner negative voice, always trying to drown out positive thoughts or times when they should want to celebrate themselves. 

"I guess what I'm trying to say is I'm gonna try to celebrate me and my accomplishments more, I think we all should," Osaka wrote. "You got up in the morning and didn't procrastinate on something? Champion. Figured something out at work that's been bugging you for a while? Absolute legend. 

"Your life is your own and you shouldn't value yourself on other people's standards."

Osaka has been celebrated for her trophies, rightfully so. What she does away from it, however, is increasingly deserving of our praise and love. She is willing to draw boundaries to protect herself and her peace, which should be of utmost importance to us all; fans are fickle, bosses will have complaints, people will always have opinions. Bending to them is the fastest way to unhappiness.

"I know I give my heart to everything I can and if that's not good enough for some then my apologies but I can't burden myself with those expectations anymore," she wrote.

Naomi Osaka shouldn't apologize to those faceless people who may have an issue with her. The thing about "people" is a lot of them expect far more from you than they ever expect from themselves. Or they think because Osaka earns a certain amount of money she can't be sad or upset or anything but expressing sunshine and singsong glee on their demand.

(Especially when you're a woman and an ethnic minority like the Haitian-Japanese Osaka, but if you've been around here before, you already know that.)

"Seeing everything that's going on in the world I feel like if I wake up in the morning that's a win. That's how I'm coming," Osaka said. 

That may seem depressing, but she's right. Her father's homeland, Haiti, just suffered another devastating earthquake just weeks after its president was assassinated; COVID-19 has become a nightmare with no apparent end as millions won't listen to the science but listen to Facebook strangers instead; there are heartbreaking images of Afghans clinging to airplane wheels in desperate attempts to escape the Taliban; there's no end to structural racism in America nor the extrajudicial killings of Black citizens by agents of the state (police in Washington D.C. gunned down Antwan Gilmore just days ago), a subject Osaka highlighted during the 2020 US Open.

For anyone paying attention, it's all so heavy. Waking up in the morning can feel like a win.

If that's what we're celebrating today, that's what we're celebrating.

But around here we're also celebrating Naomi Osaka's beautiful vulnerability and her willingness to reveal her toughest moments and work toward growth. And we're not going to apologize for it.

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