The tennis star has high hopes for a long career, but is "thinking about her legacy in a different way"

By Kara Warner
March 03, 2021 12:00 PM
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While Naomi Osaka has been honing her tennis skills — racking up trophies and accolades since turning pro at age 15, including the title of highest-paid female athlete ever in 2020 — the Japan-born phenom has also been coming into her own as an activist and role model.

The 23-year-old tennis star and one of PEOPLE's Women Changing the World this year says she feels a responsibility to use her platform to speak up and out for causes she believes in, like at the 2020 U.S. Open, where she wore a different face mask each day to honor the memories of Breonna Taylor, Treyvon Martin, George Floyd and other victims of police brutality and racial profiling.

"Even though it can be at times risky or scary, I know that it's the right thing to do," Osaka tells PEOPLE in the latest issue. "It meant a lot to me that I could carry on their legacies. I was playing with a different purpose, which helped me stay focused and put things into perspective. I didn't know what the response was going to be going into the tournament but in retrospect, I'm proud of and humbled by the reaction from the public and the media."  

Fresh off her second Australian Open championship in three years — her fourth Grand Slam title to date — Osaka's day-to-day is naturally mostly consumed by her profession, but she is also actively invested in making an impact outside the tennis court.

naomi osaka
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"At times, I still feel like a kid so it feels like a lot of responsibility!" she admits, but also recognizes the privilege that comes with her position. "Billie Jean King says that 'pressure is a privilege,'" Osaka says, quoting her mentor and women's rights icon. "It's always helpful to remind myself that at the end of the day, I love tennis and consider myself lucky to be able to play it professionally, but there are a lot of other things going on in the world and it's not just about winning or losing."

Osaka says she values her position as a role model and recently invested in and became a co-owner of the women's professional soccer team, the North Carolina Courage.

"Generally, in tennis, there is equal prize money distributed amongst the men and women. Unfortunately, it's one of the only sports where that is the case," she explains. "I think that women's soccer is massively underfunded — despite the USWNT [U.S. Women's National Soccer Team] being much more successful than their male counterparts — so I wanted to get involved because I think that there is so much potential for the league. I hope that in my new role, I can increase inspire women to take leadership positions within organizations as well."

For more about Naomi Osaka — and more inspirational Women Changing the World honorees — please pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday.

naomi osaka
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Osaka is also invested in getting and keeping girls involved in athletics.

"A few years ago, I heard a stat that girls are significantly more likely to drop out of sport than boys and that resonated with me. I can't imagine what my life would be like without tennis so I decided to start a project called Play Academy with Naomi Osaka," she explains. "Our goal is to inspire girls to stay in sport by giving them the tools, resources, and inspiration needed to stay motivated. We are currently focused on activating in Japan but I have ambitious goals for the project!"

She's focused on empowering and encouraging young women to use their voices as well as honing their athletic skills.

"I still have really ambitious goals for myself on the court but I'm thinking about legacy in a different way," Osaka says. "For me, it's about how I live my life both on and off the court. It's just as important to me that I inspire young girls to dream big and speak out against racial and gender inequality as it is to win matches."