Striding along the Champion’s Walk at the Australian Open earlier this year, only mere moments before her final tennis showdown with American player Jennifer Brady, Naomi Osaka looked stoic as ever. Eyes fixed to the floor, head-phones sitting on her ears and her racket bag slapping at her back, the 23 year-old was in-the-zone—poised, focused and nonchalant. She had defeated her tennis-idol, Serena Williams for the second time in her dazzling Grand Slam career two days earlier so, really, it was just another day at the office for Naomi.
As she walked onto the court, the roof of the mighty Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne Park opened, revealing an azure blue evening sky. A cool blustery wind had washed away the smouldering heat that had sat on the excited audience for the entirety of the tennis Open. Even after a five-day Covid lockdown in Melbourne, passionate mask-wearing fans were not perturbed to stay away from seeing history in the making, bringing an atmosphere that was bubbling with excitement. The court announcer asked the crowd who they were supporting through the wind-crackled loudspeaker. The response was definitely in favour of Osaka.
The Australian Open this year was full of exciting moments for sure, watching each of the players give their all. Familiar female players like Serena Williams, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Sophia Kenin all achieved outstanding results. It was Naomi though that really got the crowds clapping. A moment in the 2021 Australian Open that really highlighted her grace was in the third round of her third match against Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur when a persistent butterfly landed on her arm, moved up to her face, and then to her leg. Most athletes would have been flustered by this, but not Osaka. She brought the butterfly over the sideline, placed it down, and went on to win the match in straight sets. That moment encapsulated the beauty of the superstar so perfectly.
After two hours of gameplay in the final, culminating in three championship points with a whirring groundstroke deep into Brady’s corner, Osaka affixed her fourth grand slam win and second Australian Open. All the while, she stayed as cool as they come. Indeed, her shy, soft-spoken manner when receiving the trophy may have seemed odd to those who do not really know of the person behind the brilliant young tennis star. But it is this bone-dry wit, inner beauty and humble nature that has made her the most recognisable, likeable and successful young athletes on the planet.
As she stepped up to the podium to accept her award, Osaka seemed almost too shocked by the reception, giggling away in amazement. For anyone in that position, who wouldn’t have been slightly nervous having just won one of the most sought-after titles in the sporting world?
“Do you like to be called Jenny or Jennifer?” Osaka asked in her acceptance speech at the end of the match, turning to her beaten opponent.
“Jenny,” Brady replied, before Osaka innocently (and rather flustered) addressed her as Jennifer anyway. The crowd laughed at that. One can only imagine what was going through her mind at that moment.
“I told everyone who would listen that you’re going to be a problem,” Osaka continued, addressing Jenny [or Jennifer]. “I was right…”
“I know you’ve talked about your mum and I’m sure she’s really proud of you and I know everyone around you and your family are definitely very proud of you. I think we’re going to play a lot more matches…so here’s to that.”
Born in 1997 in Osaka, Japan to a tennis-adoring Haitian father and Japanese mother, the young superstar was raised to be a great. She started playing tennis casually at just age three with her older sister Mari after her hard-working family relocated to Long Island in New York. There, her childhood was strict and scheduled, but iron-willed and loving. Her parents had always been her biggest influences on and off the court, instilling the importance of hardwork and, most importantly, love.
“When I was growing up my mum always worked,” Osaka recalled to TennisHead in 2019. “She was working a lot because my dad was always with us. He was the one who was our coach. She would leave for work at four in the morning.”
It was with that passion and drive that Naomi was inspired in later life to strive for things (and those) she loves. When training, Osaka’s father Leonard cited Richard Williams’ (the father of Venus and Serena Williams) methods as the blueprints to how he coached his own children in tennis. Williams taught his daughters on clay courts, trained Serena and Venus during the day and homeschooled them at night. Leonard did the same for Naomi and Mari. In 2006, the family moved to Florida for better training opportunities and put the girls under the tutelage of Bill Adams, tennis pro at Lakeshore Tennis Park in Miramar and Osaka’s first professional coach.
“I didn’t really know [Naomi] was going to be that good,” Adams told Kyodo News in 2019. “She played, and she was okay…But one day, she was running and doing relays. I had never seen a girl run like that. She ran very strong. I saw Naomi’s ability to cover the court, and that’s when I told her father: ‘This one can be really great.'”
It was under this teaching with Adams that Naomi really found her feet around the court. As a result of this hard work, she turned pro aged 16 and started establishing herself as a force to be reckoned with, with a powerful serve and mean forehand. She climbed the ranks quickly, earning a place at No. 250 on the professional tennis charts. Osaka didn’t want to compete in the International Tennis Federation Junior Circuit for under 18’s, as is the usual way of passage with most young tennis players. Instead, she went straight for the Women’s Circuit, where she felt her abilities would be more challenged. In the Women’s Circuit, she thrived as a young athlete and as the ITF is rarely shown on television, so didn’t give her much of a very public profile. For the shy Naomi, this would have been a blessing in disguise. In a 2016 New York Times interview, Osaka was asked what her goals were in her sporting life in the ITF Women’s Circuit and for the future.
“To be the very best, like no one ever was,” she answered excitedly. When the interviewer didn’t completely understand her joke, Naomi was quick to school her.
“Oh, that’s a Pokemon quote, I’m sorry,” she said. “That’s the Pokemon theme song! But, yeah, to be the very best, and go as far as I can go.”
And to be the best she did. Like no one ever was before her. In 2016, Osaka entered her first two qualifying draws on the Woman Tennis Association tour at the Challenge Bell in Quebec and the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo. From there, she was ranked No. 40 and made the third round in all three of the Grand Slams she played. Oh, and she also won the prestigious Newcomer of the Year at the WTA Awards. Impressive, given her age at the time.
Under the teaching of Serena Williams’ former hitting partner, German-born Sascha Bajin in 2018, Osaka became the first Japanese woman to win the competitive Indian Wells tournament, and at the next event, in Miami, she crushed her hero, Serena Williams, in straight sets (6-2, 6-4) in the first round. For those who remember the infamous 2018 US Open, Serena was penalised for receiving coaching, slammed her racket to the ground and got into a blazing argument with the chair umpire. But that didn’t hinder Osaka’s sporting ability at all. Instead it confirmed that Osaka is definitely someone not to reckon with, staying cool and calm throughout. And she got to No.1 in the tennis charts two years later.
“It’s always a surreal moment,” Osaka said on playing Williams. “Even just to see her in real life, like close up. I rarely see her, to be honest. I think our practice times are different.”
With Osaka’s mixed heritage, her engaging, likeable personality and attacking style of plays she has been made into the world’s most marketable athletes. In October, 2019, Osaka gave up her US citizenship to represent Japan in the 2020 Olympics (which was unfortunately postponed due to Covid), yet still racked in a whopping USD$37.4 million paycheck in prize money, breaking an all-time earnings record for a female athlete in a single year. According to Forbes, published last year, Osaka is No. 29 on the annual list of the 100 top-earning athletes, with Williams at No. 33.
As a high-earning top-ranked 23 year-old tennis player, she soon found out that her words too carried so much power with them. During the journey to her third Grand Slam victory, Naomi sported customised black face masks that bore the names of African-Americans who had been killed in recent years: Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice.
“I remember Trayvon’s death clearly,” Osaka tweeted last year. “I remember being a kid and just feeling scared. I know his death wasn’t the first but for me it was the one that opened my eyes to what was going on. To see the same things happening over and over still is sad. Things have to change.”
After the death of George Floyd, Osaka became an advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement and joined numerous protests to show support. Her goal, she said in her advocacy, is to have an “impact on society”.
“Before I am an athlete, I am a black woman,”
Osaka wrote in a statement. “And as a black woman, I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis. I don’t expect anything drastic to happen with me not playing, but if I can get a conversation started in a majority-white sport, I consider that a step in the right direction. Watching the continued genocide of black people at the hands of the police is honestly making me sick to my stomach. I’m exhausted of having a new hashtag pop up every few days and I’m extremely tired of having this same conversation over and over again. When will it ever be enough?”
Another way to get her message heard is Naomi’s current collaboration with Swiss watchmakers, TAG Heuer. “The brand recognises in Osaka a bold expression of its founding values—passion for action, high-performance, mental strength and avant-garde—and sees her as a natural and authentic fit for the company. It is difficult to imagine a better embodiment of TAG Heuer’s ‘Don’t crack under pressure’ motto,” said a recent statement from the brand.
Osaka certainly doesn’t crack under any pressure that’s dealt to her. With all her commitments and successes, she famously leads a pretty normal life, claiming that she is a ‘homebody’, loves cooking, playing video games (her favorite is Apex Legends) and is a ‘huge goofball’ (her words, not ours). She’s an average humble, oftentimes shy and loving 23 year-old. Playing such an important role on and off the court, Osaka has proved that winning a Grand Slam doesn’t change a person. Naomi has always stayed grounded and celebrated just by being herself.
“I used to think that everything depended on the game,” Naomi told Vogue last year, “and now I sort of understand that you have to find balance. I want to become knowledgeable, to have a vast understanding of things, or even lots of tiny things that amount to one big thing. I want to be a nice person to everyone I meet. This is putting it in video-game terms, but I think the me right now is sort of at the level 50 of tennis, and everything else in my life is at level five or six. I want to even out my levels…”