She’s based in the US, but her parents are Haitian and Japanese. Naomi Osaka is at the forefront of the changing of the guard in women’s tennis, with an unflappable nature that served her well in last year’s US Open final. Caroline Taylor charts her dramatic rise to fame. Published in the first issue (July 2019) of the relaunched Parkite Sports Magazine
From the moment she made her WTA main draw debut as a qualifier at the 2014 Stanford Classic – knocking out former US Open Champion Sam Stosur – Naomi Osaka was marked as one to watch.
She was 16, ranked 406th in the world, and only in her second year on the tour. But with serves clocking in at 120mph and a blistering 100mph forehand (Federer’s averages 76mph), fans and pundits sat up and took notice.
Though her ambitious goal of winning a major and being world number one by 18 didn’t materialise, she won the WTA Rising Stars Invitational in 2015 and the WTA Newcomer of the Year award in 2016, by which time her ranking had climbed to number 48. In 2017, she recorded two impressive victories against top-ten players, both former grand slam champions – Angelique Kerber and Venus Williams.
But her real breakthrough came in March 2018 at Indian Wells, one of the most coveted titles outside the majors. She dropped just one set en route to lifting the trophy, clinically dismantling her opposition, which included two former number-one players (Maria Sharapova and Karolina Pliskova) as well as then number one Simona Halep.
Osaka struggled to find her form after Indian Wells, entering the US Open on a three-match losing streak. But then something magical happened for her. She went in with the pressure off, no expectations, and the freedom to enjoy each moment on the big stage of a grand slam – just the way she likes it.
She barrelled through the draw, only dropping one set on her way to a showdown against her idol Serena Williams, who was one win away from a record-tying 24th grand slam title. Osaka dominated before the infamous altercations between chair umpire Carlos Ramos and an increasingly overwrought Serena, and eventually she took the final in straight sets.
The road to number one
With Osaka now beginning to grasp the potential that had been on show since her WTA debut, the immediate question was whether this incredibly talented but also tremendously introverted young player could back up her success, handle the glare of the spotlight, and become the breakout, next-generation star the sport hungered for. Grand slam champions in recent years had routinely struggled to maintain form after their breakthrough majors. Could Osaka be the exception?
She had the talent and the drive. She had a quirky personality that endeared her to fans and media alike through press conferences and social media posts that were often candid, insightful, and full of dead-pan humour. And she had a special multi-cultural backstory: born in Japan to Haitian and Japanese parents, she had grown up in New York and Florida. Fans, sponsors, the media, and the WTA saw a rising star with virtually unmatched international appeal.
In the following months, Osaka had to learn quickly to navigate both the intense off-court attention and the on-court pressure of having a target on her back. She made deep runs into a series of tournaments between the US Open and Australian Open, and entered the 2019 Australian ranked number four in the world. But she had not regained the form that she’d shown at Indian Wells and the US Open the year before.
She had a much tougher road to the Australian Open finals, battling through four three-set matches, and a gruelling final against two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova.
But this is where those difficult earlier rounds became a gift: she had the belief and the confidence that she could turn it around. In doing so, she became the first woman since Jennifer Capriati to win her first two grand slam titles back to back. She also claimed the number one ranking – the first Japanese- or Haitian-descended player to do so. Osaka held the position for 21 weeks, until being dethroned in late June by French Open champion, Ash Barty.
The role model
The months after the Australian were full of change. Osaka unexpectedly parted ways with the coach who’d been credited as instrumental to her 2018 success. She struggled through the rest of the hard-court season, cutting it short to train at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca ahead of the clay court season. In 2018, her win-loss record on clay was 5-4; in 2019 it improved to 9-2.
And – as big sponsorship deals rolled in with the likes of Nike and MasterCard – she was also coming to terms with what it meant to suddenly be seen as a role model for black, Japanese, Haitian, and mixed-race young people around the world. When Barbie released their Shero line in March, one of the dolls was designed in her likeness. “In athletics they have this statistic that girls drop out of sports quicker than boys,” Osaka said when it was launched. “I hope that girls feel inspired, and I hope they somehow see a lot of possibilities when they look at all the dolls.”
Amid all the change and attention, Osaka remains hungry and focused on improving and achieving — even as she grappled publicly with the newfound fame and expectations. Her success in 2018 came in no small part from adding critical skills to her arsenal: conditioning, movement, patience, and shot selection. In 2019, she’s displayed an impressive ability to problem-solve on court and to seal wins after being well behind, making her among the most resilient in the game. And there’s still massive room for growth, particularly on clay and grass.
“I have always felt like I could be an all-court player,” she’s said. “I always tell myself I don’t like clay, so I never really embrace anything about it … and the same goes for a grass court, because I see people slide and slip and it is a little bit frightening for me. So I think I have to change that.”
As the hard court season rolls around once more, Osaka will likely continue to work on beefing up her serve percentage (especially her second serve); improving her feel at the net; and continuing to develop a patient, positive mindset. Come the US Open in August (26-September 8), she’ll be hoping for a return to form as she begins mounting the first of two straight Grand Slam title defences before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – where, unlike in the US, she’ll be the hometown favourite.
If we’re lucky, Naomi Osaka will continue to combine her power game with an unusual emotional literacy and willingness to authentically share her journey with the world. “I feel like my career has just started. I’ve always dreamed about being number one … and of course I have other goals now. The only thing I can do is keep moving forward and keep trying my best.”
Once she stays healthy and learns to consistently alchemise the on-court and off-court pressures — the transition from underdog to target, from player to brand — this half-Caribbean star may well be the face of women’s tennis for years to come.
- Born: 16 October, 1997 citizenship: Japan; USA
- Height: 5’11” plays: Right-handed
- Playing style: Aggressive baseline
- Prize money: US$11,366,358 (career)
- Win/loss record: 199/126 (singles, career)
- Coach: Jermaine Jenkins
Data as of 26 June, 2019