Few players at AO2019 will be more closely followed than Naomi Osaka. The newest Grand Slam champion was the most-searched name in the game in 2018, following her sensational US Open victory over childhood idol Serena Williams.
Not the least impressive was the 20-year-old’s composure as controversy engulfed the last few games of the final and its aftermath. “When I step onto the court, I’m not a Serena fan,” Osaka articulated beautifully as a newly-minted major winner. “I’m just a tennis player playing another tennis player. But then when I hugged her at the net, I felt like a little kid again.”
Ranked 19, and with a solitary win on North American hardcourts coming into the US Open, Osaka dropped just one set at Flushing Meadows - to fellow rising star Aryna Sabalenka in the fourth round. Her winner’s cheque of $US3.8 million more than doubled her career prize money. And as Japan’s first Grand Slam champion, Osaka hit an endorsement jackpot, signing with Citizen watches, Nissin noodles, cable broadcaster Wowow and carmaker Nissan, alongside standing deals with Yonex racquets and adidas apparel.
Osaka’s youth, bold-hitting game and cross-cultural appeal - with a Japanese mother and Haitian father - led Forbes to describe the now 21-year-old as “the face of global tennis for the next decade.” Wowow’s Japanese TV audience for the US Open final was nine times greater than in 2017, while host broadcaster ESPN put the US audience for the women’s final at 50 percent bigger than for the men’s decider.