Spotlight: Naomi Osaka

  • Matt Trollope

A two-time Grand Slam champion should need little explanatory introduction.

Yet in Naomi Osaka’s case, her rise to global superstardom has occurred in a remarkably compressed time-span – and some people may still be catching up.

Less than two years ago, she arrived at the US Open barely ranked inside the top 20.

On court

Earlier in 2018 she had won the sport’s “fifth major” at Indian Wells. Incredibly, this was her first career title.

While that made her notable among tennis fans, her performance at Flushing Meadows saw her profile explode internationally.

Dropping just one set in reaching her first Grand Slam final, Osaka out-hit Serena Williams in that controversial US Open decider to claim one of the sport’s biggest prizes.

Just four tournaments later, she won Australian Open 2019 – a triumph that elevated her to world No.1.

Osaka struggled with the fame and recognition that accompanied her rise, failing to win a title for the next seven months.

Yet after a fourth-round exit in her US Open title defence, she did not lose another match in 2019, winning WTA titles in Osaka and Beijing and building a 14-match winning streak that extended into early 2020.

Notable stat

With her Australian Open 2019 victory, Osaka became the first woman in 18 years to win her first two Grand Slam singles titles back-to-back. The last player to achieve this feat was Jennifer Capriati, at the Australian and French Opens in 2001.

Off court

In May 2020, Forbes revealed the Japanese star had become the highest-annual-earning female athlete ever after amassing $37.4 million – a combination of on-court prize money and endorsements – in the past 12 months.

“Being youthful and bicultural, two attributes that help her resonate with younger, global audiences, and the result is the emergence of a global sports marketing icon,” said USC sports business professor David Carter.

Osaka is aware of the power that comes with her increasing influence and profile.

She used her platform to announce she would not play her Western & Southern Open semifinal in New York in protest against racial injustice, following the shooting of African-American man Jacob Blake by Wisconsin police.

The tournament followed her lead, pausing all play the following day.

Earlier in 2020, Osaka documented her participation in Black Lives Matter protests throughout the US and strongly supported the BLM movement across her social media accounts.

She also entered the philanthropic space, teaming with sister Mari – also a pro tennis player – to design facemasks from which the money raised in sales would be donated to COVID-19 relief efforts.

X-factor

“(Her Grand Slam success) plus her heritage—a Japanese mother and a Haitian-American father—helped separate her from the pack; at only 20 when she won her (US) Open title, she had a cool factor and an engaging personality,” the Forbes article explained.

Introverted, quirky, self-aware and disarmingly honest, she has become a fan favourite and media darling. 

But often obscured is the fact she is both an intense competitor and profound thinker.

"Youthful and bicultural ... the result is the emergence of a global sports marketing icon."
David Carter, University of Southern California sports business professor

Her “big match” instincts are obvious, given her first three career titles – Indian Wells, US Open and Australian Open – came on the sport’s grandest stages with wins over the game’s biggest names.

Osaka indicated her intent to become as assertive off court as on it when tweeted her dissatisfaction at the limits she was placing on herself.

Increasingly, we’re seeing a bolder, more confident version of Osaka emerge as 2020 unfolds – which could translate to the match court when tennis resumes.

She said … 

After beating Serena Williams in their first meeting in Miami 2018: “I just kind of wanted to impress her, and I just wanted to make her say, 'Come on!' one time, and I think she did, so I'm really happy about that. I just wanted her to, in the end, like, after the match, just know who I am.”

On elevating her game at the majors: “For me, Grand Slams is something you dream about playing as a kid. I don't ever want to waste this opportunity.”

Experts are saying …

“Rookie Grand Slam tournament champs often fall short at their next major. All Naomi Osaka did was conquer the world again. No one represents our more globalized, multicultural future better than this honest, polite, self-deprecating tennis life force, a potential champion for years to come.”
- 18-time Grand Slam champion Chris Evert