For anyone who likes easy answers to questions of identity, Naomi Osaka is a conundrum: half-Haitian, half-Japanese, raised for part of her childhood in New York City, visibly hybrid. As Caroline Taylor learns, Osaka hasn’t always been comfortable with the role of mixed-race role model — but she’s learning to embrace it, on her own terms. Published as the cover story of the July/August issue of Caribbean Beat
As I tuned in to the US Open semi-finals last year, I realised I recognised one of the competitors — twenty-three-year-old American Madison Keys — but not the other. Naomi Osaka was tall, brown, baby-faced, and with a shock of blonde highlights peeping through the pony-bun at the back of her cap.
As Osaka and Keys traded powerful groundstrokes from the baseline, I headed to Google for details: born 16 October, 1997; half Japanese, half Haitian; a dual American and Japanese citizen who’d lived in the US since she was three. Debates were also raging online about how to describe her (Japanese-American? Haitian-Japanese? Haitian-Japanese-American?). It was a curious thing to observe. Osaka, in many ways, was the hometown girl, having lived for years in New York City as a child — but she played for Japan. The crowd in that Queens arena was squarely behind Keys, with support for Osaka manifested through a smattering of Japanese and Haitian flags in the stands.
Osaka herself has said she wouldn’t know what being an American feels like. When, by Japanese law, she must “endeavour to renounce” her US citizenship this October, there’s little doubt what she will do.
Almost identical scenes played out as Osaka took on her idol, Serena Williams, in the US Open final. She’d not been favoured to beat Keys, and only a few bold pundits had picked her to stand between Williams and a record-tying twenty-fourth grand slam. It would become an unforgettable match for a multitude of reasons: a controversial showdown between Williams and the chair umpire, a fraught trophy presentation that left Osaka in tears, and the feverish debates about sexism and racism that followed the match. But through it all, this rising star showed tremendous composure and form to win her first major championship.
Questions immediately began to circulate about how she would cope with the newfound attention, pressure, and controversy. Could she do what no other female player since Williams had done, and become a consistent threat at majors? Osaka answered by following one grand slam championship with another, winning the Australian Open in January, and claiming the number-one ranking (which she would hold for 21 weeks before being overtaken by French Open champion Ash Barty, She returned to the number one spot in mid-August). If anyone mistook Osaka’s gentle and introverted demeanour for weakness, a closer look might have revealed that finding success against the odds may as well be in her DNA.
Osaka’s parents — Leonard Maxime François and Tamaki Osaka — met in Sapporo, Japan, in the early 1990s. After dating secretly, their decision to marry would cause a rift between Tamaki and her parents that would last nearly fifteen years. Their two girls, Mari and Naomi, were born in Osaka in 1996 and 1997, respectively, taking their mother’s last name (and, by coincidence, the city’s) to make things like enrolling in school easier. The family moved to the US in 2001, living with François’s parents in Long Island, NY. There, the Haitians spoke Creole and cooked spicy vegetable stews, fried plantains, beans, and oxtail, while Tamaki kept Japanese language and traditions alive.
In 2006, the family moved down to Pembroke Pines, Florida, a suburb of Miami. By this time, François was closely following the Richard Williams playbook for developing the talents of his two daughters, who he was convinced could be the next Venus and Serena.
It was a struggle for the family to make ends meet. François served as Naomi and Mari’s first coach, but had to seek out the support and magnanimity of various professional coaches in south Florida as they progressed. They trained hard by day, and were home-schooled online in the evenings. The family made an early decision to have the girls represent Japan, and Naomi turned professional in 2012. By mid-2014, she was playing her first WTA tournament (knocking out a former US Open Champion in her first match), before winning the 2015 WTA Rising Star Invitational and 2016 WTA Newcomer of the Year award.
But Osaka hit a wall in 2017. She was having difficulty staying positive, being consistent, and elevating her game. Towards the end of the year, she took a break and travelled to Haiti for the first time, visiting the school her parents had built some twenty years earlier, the IOA Centre, and getting to know her father’s hometown of Jacmel. The trip — and her hiring a new coach — marked a turning point in Osaka’s career.
“I went to Haiti the first time two years ago — and then I started playing well,” Osaka explains. “It meant a lot, because it’s my Dad’s motherland, and I’ve been to Japan so many times but I haven’t been to Haiti as much. Just to see everyone being so kind and welcoming was incredible, and humbling. It was really eye-opening and helped me with my mentality when I’m playing . . . It helped me be grateful that I’m even on the court, that I’m not injured, having the opportunity to play the matches . . . Even if I lose, I realise this isn’t the worst thing that could happen to me.”
Her first WTA tournament win came at prestigious Indian Wells the following March. She made another trip to Haiti in late 2018 — this time as a grand slam champion. Not only did she launch a new wing of the IOA Centre, she also received the keys to the city of Jacmel, was made a goodwill ambassador for Haitian sport, and donated the racket and sneakers she’d used at the US Open final to the National Museum in Port-au-Prince.
It’s a Haitian connection Osaka seems eager to maintain. After a Barbie doll version of her was launched in March, she announced that her partnership fees would be donated to the IOA Centre. In April, at the Coachella festival, she unveiled a collaboration she initiated with Haitian-American artist Tracy Guiteau — a sprawling, psychedelic installation called the Osaka Wave. It was a piece Guiteau said took nearly thirty hours to construct, and represented the positive “ripple effect” Osaka was having both for Haitians and mixed Japanese.
Initially uncomfortable with the idea of being a role model, and weary of identity conversations, Osaka is quickly learning to better appreciate and embrace both. “A lot of parents of biracial kids come up to me and say that their kid looks up to me, and I feel like that’s a big responsibility,” she says. “But it’s also an honour, because I feel like I’m representing not only me but a bunch of other kids that maybe wouldn’t have gotten that chance to be represented.”
What she’s also learning is that the best way to be a positive role model is simply to continue trying to be the best version of herself, and to share that journey honestly. Though her quirky and self-deprecating sense of humour is often a hallmark of her outings with the media (she won Tennis Now’s Best in Press Award in 2018), what is also on display is an unusual thoughtfulness and authenticity. She’s spoken openly about struggles with depression, perfectionism, and “immaturity,” and she’s also spoken about things — like gratitude, cultivating a sense of inner peace, and remembering to just have fun — that help her overcome them.
It’s been an intense and bumpy road since the Australian Open. She unexpectedly parted ways with her coach in February — who many had seen as instrumental to her meteoric rise. The adjustment period to a new coach, the pressure of being the favourite rather than the underdog, and the intense media scrutiny weighed heavy on her. Following a string of disappointing hard court results, she took time out to successfully beef up her clay court game in the lead-up to the French Open, significantly improving her win/loss record on the surface for the season. Though she wasn’t able to make similar improvements on grass to make a deep run into Wimbledon (1 to 14 July) for the first time, she’ll now no doubt be turning her attention back to the hard courts as she prepare for the 2019 US Open (26 August to 8 September). This time, however, she’ll be returning as the defending champion.
Osaka’s always relished the big stages of grand slams, where she’s found her best tennis. There’s a sense of inevitability to her lifting all four of the major trophies, sooner or later. And along the way, she’s carefully and quietly ensuring that she puts her own goals and expectations for herself ahead of any imposed on her from outside. “I always felt like I was different, didn’t look like other people — but it was never my goal to blend in. I never felt I had to fit into a box. I made my own box, and was just happy being me,” she says with a wisdom that belies her age. “I don’t think there is ever going to be another Serena Williams. I think I’m going to be me. And I hope people are OK with that.”