From timid to untouchable
By Matthew Smith, Sports Editor
With her career mapped out ahead of her after her fourth Grand Slam title at the youthful age of 23, Japan’s Naomi Osaka still remains more like the timid girl we remember for her tears rather than her success.
The world No 2 (well, she will be on Monday) claimed the Australian Open for a second time on Saturday to add to her two US Open crowns, but rather than tout herself as the greatest thing since - erm - Serena Williams, the youngster insists she takes greater joy in inspiring the next generation of potential stars in tennis.
Osaka has solidified her position at the forefront of a new era for tennis, with the Williams sisters the only active players with more Grand Slam titles - an astonishing statistic if you consider her age, Serena and Venus’ combined years of 79, and the number of seasons players such as Simona Halep and Ash Barty have been on tour.
While much has been made of Osaka’s recent dominance in the game, as modest as ever she insists she will forever be in the shadow of Serena - who has 23 Slam crowns - and the American remains the face of the women’s game.
The Japanese was reduced to tears after defeating Serena in the 2019 US Open final as a patriotic crowd booed during the trophy presentation after a controversial match, but she has a hidden steel behind that apparently fragile visage. Osaka has won four of the past eight Grand Slam competitions on offer, extended her winning streak to 21 matches, and has never lost a final in a major.
Her triumph in Melbourne has been heralded as a shift in women’s tennis with Australia’s Fed Cup captain Alicia Molik declaring it a “changing of the guard”, while the New Yorker said Osaka was the “most thrilling athlete of her generation”.
Osaka, who thumped Serena in the Australian semis, sees things differently. When asked if she was now taking over from Williams as the game’s leading light, Osaka replied: “No, not at all,” adding that she simply wanted to remain true to herself. “I have learned on-and-off the court it’s okay to not be sure about yourself,” she said. “I’m more at peace with where I am, and I’m honestly just happy to be playing a Grand Slam in a pandemic.”
Having struggled with being thrust into the fame spotlight as a shy youngster, Osaka claims she is still learning and “growing as a person” but, while her dominance shows she is truly already in the history books as a great player, her main priority is as humble as herself - to inspire young players.
“In the past I felt it as a very strong responsibility, and I was also very scared and nervous of it,” she said. “It’s a really big honour that there are little kids that like me, that come to my matches and cheer for me. But at the same time, I don’t weigh it too heavily on myself.”
From others in this age of outspoken and brash athletes such as Nick Kyrgios and Max Verstappen, such a statement would be taken with a pinch of salt, but from Osaka it can only be wholeheartedly believed and embraced.
A historic fourth Grand Slam: What it means
By Marwa Hamad, Assistant Editor
After defeating Jennifer Brady with a 6-4, 6-3 victory this week, Osaka became the first woman to win her first four Grand Slam finals since Monica Seles achieved this incredible feat in the early 1990s. In addition, the only male player to do so is Roger Federer.
Third seed Osaka, of Japanese and Haitian descent, is expected to go to No 2 in world rankings on Monday (February 22). The timidly spoken player is known to keep her verbal communcation sparse, but her tennis speaks for itself: it's bold, competitive and unrelenting.
Last year, Osaka’s confidence was shaken as she lost the Australian Open title to 15-year-old Coco Gauff in round three.
However, Osaka’s reticent nature, which many once perceived as sheepish or insecure, is no longer a representation of who Osaka really is. Like many other young people who were forced to introspect during the pandemic, Osaka found her voice at a tumultuous and incredibly meangful time.
“I think the thing that I'm most proud of is now mentally strong I've become," said Osaka.
"I used to be really up and down. For me, I had a lot of doubts in myself. I think, the quarantine process and seeing everything that's going on in the world, for me, it put a lot into perspective."
Osaka’s wry humour and ability to stand her ground in her own way have become a staple of her identity, both on and off the court.
In fact, Osaka's rise has been so great that Forbes named her the highest paid athlete in the world in 2020.
Osaka captivates the world whether through her vigorous skill or something as simple as a butterfly landing on her nose on global television. But her transformation journey, from humble caterpillar to a bold butterfly of her own, has been just as profound.
Who is Naomi Osaka?
Naomi Osaka was born on October 16, 1997 in Japan, to a Haitian father, Leonard Francois, and a Japanese mother, Tamaki Osaka. At a young age, she took on her mother’s family name as it made more sense while they were living in Japan.
Osaka’s parents met when her father, a New York college student, was visiting Hokkaido.
(Osaka’s sister Mari, 18 months older than her, is also a professional tennis player. As is tradition at the Australian Open, the winner autographs the tournament’s camera lens; this year, Osaka scribbled a very serious message in blue marker, directed at her sibling: ‘Mari, stop sending weird images in the group chat.)
Osaka moved to Long Island, New York at the age of three years old to live with her father’s parents, and became an American citizen. However, according to Japanese laws, those who hold dual citizenship must choose to keep one by the age of 22; so, Osaka chose to hold onto her Japanese citizenship and give up her American citizenship.
This goes back to a decision that she and her family made early on in her journey: Osaka would represent Japan, not America, to the world. (By the time the United States Tennis Association showed interest in signing Osaka when she was 16, she declined.)
"We made the decision that Naomi would represent Japan at an early age,” Osaka’s mother, Tamaki, told the Wall Street Journal in 2019. |She was born in Osaka and was brought up in a household of Japanese and Haitian culture. Quite simply, Naomi and her sister Mari have always felt Japanese so that was our only rationale.”
Following the 'Serena and Venus' blueprints
Much like Richard Williams trained his daughters Serena and Venus from a young age, Leonard Francois began to train his daughters when they were three and four years old.
In fact, Richard was his inspiration.
In the late ‘90s, Francois watched a television broadcast of the French Open, in which Venus was 18 and Serena was 17. Beyond the two teen powerhouses standing front and centre, Francois felt their father, who wasn't a tennis player himself, had created an invaluable plan to transform his daughters into world champions.
“The blueprint was already there. I just had to follow it,” Francois told the New York Times in 2018.
The Kobe connection
After defeating Serena Williams at the Australian Open semi-finals this year, Osaka showed up to a post-match press conference wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey.
The late basketball player had a profound impact on Osaka over the years as he brought her out of her shell and imparted his ‘Mamba mentality’ onto her.
“For today, I felt like I needed some extra strength,” said Osaka. “That's kind of why I'm wearing this.”
Osaka has made a habit of wearing Kobe’s jerseys after each big win. “I wore this jersey every day after my matches. I truly think it gave me strength. Always,” she wrote in September, with a yellow and purple heart, to signify the Lakers colours.
“I didn’t even know he was paying attention, but he would text me positive things [after a tough loss] and tell me to learn from it. For me, it was definitely helpful,” Osaka said, of her close bond with Bryant.
When Bryant died in a helicopter crash in January of 2020, Osaka penned an emotional letter to her “bro/mentor/inspiration”.
“Thank you for caring and checking up on me after my hard losses. Thank you for randomly texting me ‘You ok?’, cause you know how [expletive] up my head is sometimes. Thank you for teaching me so much in the short time I’ve been lucky enough to have known you,” she wrote.
Osaka later told reporters: ”I just want to be the type of person that he thought I was going to be. He thought I was going to be great, so hopefully, I will be great in the future.”
Osaka’s love of Serena, explained
It’s important to remember that Williams was once as young and new to the game as Naomi Osaka is today — and she wasn’t welcomed with open arms. It’s hard to forget interviewers who would grill Williams, when she was just a child, trying to coax certain responses from her until her father (and coach) would intervene.
It was September of 1999 — 22 years ago — that Williams won her first Grand Slam at the US Open. Williams was only 18 years old. Osaka was two.
And so, even though Osaka became a household name in 2018 when she beat Serena Williams at the US Open at the age of 21, she understandably couldn’t work up the nerve to say hello off the court.
“I have this huge respect for her. It’s some that I’ve, you know, looked up to my entire life. So I still feel a bit shocked whenever she reaches out,” said Osaka. “I don’t say hi to her or anything because … I get so nervous.”
Osaka added: “I really want to talk to her about life and stuff and, like, how she manages to do things on and off the court. But … I don’t wanna be disrespectful to her and try to talk to her like she’s my mentor while she’s still playing. So I’m kinda just chillin’ on that.”
(She also disliked being prematurely referred to as Williams’ peer. “I would have to win 20-something more Grand Slams to be her peer,” said Osaka. “She has so many list of accomplishments, so no way.”)
When asked this week about how she felt about the possibility of Serena walking away from the game, Osaka hesitated before reverting to the child who watched Williams play growing up.
“Every time I play her I definitely feel like it’s something I’ll definitely remember, a lot. And, I don’t know, it’s kind of sad when you say it like that, because for me, I want her to play forever. That’s the little kid in me.”
The fight for racial justice: 'I’m a vessel to spread awareness'
As Osaka finds her voice, she also uses it in the fight for racial justice.
Osaka is an outspoken opponent of racist violence and police brutality in America and has found that even silence can speak loudly and clearly. On the court, she protested in her own way: by wearing face masks bearing the names of victims such as Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castle, Elijah McClain and and George Floyd.
After winning her US Open match in September 2020, Osaka recieved a personalised message of thanks from Trayvon Martin’s mother and Ahmaud Arbery’s father.
“They’re so strong. I’m not sure what I would be able to do if I was in their position. I feel like I’m a vessel at this point, in order to spread awareness and hopefully — it’s not gonna dull the pain, but hopefully I can help, with anything that they need,” said Osaka.
“I was just trying really hard not to cry. For me, it's a bit surreal. It's extremely touching that they would feel touched by what I'm doing. For me, I feel like what I've been doing is nothing. It's a speck of what I could be doing,” she added at a press conference.
Osaka wasn’t worried what other people would think of her activism. For her, being Japanese and Haitian, racial justice hit close to him.
“There are clearly so many worthy issues. This one especially resonated with me because of my own personal up-bringing; and also while the tennis tour was paused [due to Covid-19], I was able to watch and read news at length for the first time in my life. This summer in the US tensions were high and reached boiling point. It was the right time for me to speak up,” said Osaka.
“I really didn’t stop to think about what others would think of my actions. Other people’s opinions weren’t going to stop me from doing what I know in my heart was the right thing to do. The strong voices of Colin [Kaepernick] and LeBron [James] were certainly positive influences for me and gave me strength in my own convictions,” she added.
Osaka’s message to the next generation
It was Osaka’s dream to play against Li Na — the iconic Chinese tennis player who retired in 2014. Li won nine WTA Tour singles, including two Grand Slams. She also became the first Chinese player to break into the world’s top ten tennis players, achieving a career high ranking of No 2.
Now, Osaka’s dream is to play against the next generation of young girls who might be watching her from their home screens today.
“I feel like the biggest thing that I want to achieve is… hopefully I play long enough to play. A girl that said that I was once her favourite player,” admitted Osaka.
“For me, I think that’s the coolest thing that could ever happen to me… Unfortunately, I didn’t get to play Li Na, but I just think that’s how the sport moves forward.”
Japan has lift-off at success
Japan's celebrations for Naomi Osaka's fourth Grand Slam title went into orbit, with even an astronaut tweeting congratulations from the International Space Station.
Osaka's triumph over Brady in the Australian Open final was hailed in Japan, and beyond, as astronaut Soichi Noguchi wrote from space "Naomi Osaka, congratulations on the victory," with a gold-medal emoji. Japan's media said it brought prospects of a gold medal at the coronavirus-delayed Tokyo Olympics "a big step closer".
At a large pub in the Japanese capital, there was no roar of celebration but plenty of excitement from fans at socially distanced tables. "She was perfect. I expected her to win this game, because she won against Serena (Williams), and that was a good performance," said Moeko, 40, describing herself as the Japanese player's "biggest fan". "She is such a great player, and such a good person," Moeko, a cheerleading coach, told AFP.
Major broadcasters flashed news of the 23-year-old's latest Grand Slam win, which added to victories at the 2018 US Open, the 2019 Australian Open and the 2020 US Open. "Osaka got a big step closer to winning the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics," the Nikkan Sports daily said of the player, who is a leading face of the Games in her home nation. "The Australian victory is a barometer for the gold medal" at the Tokyo Games, where tennis matches are played on the same type of court, the newspaper said - calling Osaka "the queen of hard courts."
Osaka has said she is still keen to compete at the Tokyo Olympics, which were delayed by one year by the pandemic and are due to open in July. "It wasn't easy to prepare during the coronavirus pandemic, but she played excellently," said Kenichiro Yamanishi, chair of the Japan Tennis Association. "The season has just begun ahead of the Tokyo Olympics this summer. I am looking forward to an even greater performance," Yamanishi said.
In Tokyo, 17-year-old Riko, watching the final with her family, said Osaka was popular among her friends and other young people. "She's amazing," she said.
Yumi, a 38-year-old paralegal, said she had been sure Osaka would win. "Of course I feel proud," she said. "Japan is a closed island, but she is completely different... I am really proud of her, as a Japanese person. She made an effort for Black Lives Matter, and she can make a big difference to people's views, not only in Japan but in other Asian countries."