YOKOHAMA - It was March and Naomi Osaka had just won the biggest match of her life, fulfilling the promise that many pundits had long foreseen.
But it wasn’t just her brilliant game that had the tennis world abuzz — it was her awkward personality and down-to-earth charm.
“Hi, I’m Naomi,” she started to say at the beginning of her victory speech.
“OK, never mind. Umm . . .” she continued, visibly flustered.
The crowd in Indian Wells, California, chuckled at every giggly thank you and stuttery remark that followed during what Osaka herself dubbed the “worst acceptance speech of all time.”
Osaka’s budding stardom fully bloomed at the U.S. Open, with her Saturday triumph over Serena Williams helping her make the leap from being a favorite among tennis fans to a household name here and abroad.
It’s safe to say she no longer needs to introduce herself.
This was evident Thursday, when throngs of reporters greeted Japan’s newest sporting superstar at a news conference in Yokohama, just hours after she landed at Tokyo’s Haneda airport in her return to the country of her birth.
“I’ve never had like — oh my God it’s so bright — so many people coming to a press conference before so for sure it’s sinking in now,” she said of her exploding fame, later expressing her gratitude for the Japanese fans that watched her matches in New York and those who waited for her at the airport that morning.
Since her win, Osaka has graced the cover of newspapers and magazines across the country, been the subject of TV specials and had every aspect of her life dissected by talk-show personalities. From her family life to her coach to her love of Japanese food and sweets — matcha ice cream appears to be a personal favorite — it’s all news.
In the United States, she appeared on “Today” and the “Ellen DeGeneres Show,” where the comedic host tried to set her up with actor Michael B. Jordan, much to Osaka’s embarrassment.
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) September 12, 2018
She is primarily here to play tennis but there will surely be more TV appearances and events related to her growing number of Japanese sponsors — a group that now includes Nissan after she signed an agreement Thursday to be the automaker’s “brand ambassador.” In addition, on the same day, Osaka was close to finalizing an $8.5 million a year endorsement deal with Adidas, The Times of London reported. The newspaper noted it would be the biggest endorsement deal in women’s tennis.
Indeed, “Osaka fever” has rapidly spread across the nation and people involved in the sport are witnessing that firsthand.
In her namesake city of Osaka, where she was born to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, Naomi’s success has been celebrated at the tennis center where her father introduced her to the game.
Maika Yoshinaga, a receptionist at the Utsubo Tennis Center said that, while spring and fall are when inquiries for the school usually increase, it has received twice the usual volume of queries since the U.S. Open.
The center has been in a celebratory mood since her win and has busily sought out newspaper clippings to put on display at the facility, she said.
Models of Osaka’s Yonex racket have been selling well, said Masahito Yamazaki of the planning division of Windsor Co., which operates tennis shops in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan.
Some customers have even made sure to buy the same grip tape and strings used by Osaka, he said.
Mayuko Hashimoto, a longtime tennis player who competes in amateur tournaments and lives in Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward, called Osaka’s win a “brilliant achievement” and expressed pride over her victory.
When asked at Thursday’s news conference to give pointers to young players starting out in tennis, Osaka told them to just have fun and always try their best.
“But don’t look up to me because I don’t want that responsibility,” she said with a laugh, drawing chuckles from reporters.
Despite that comment, it’s clear that Osaka recognizes that her success has, like it or not, thrust her into a position where she can be an example for young players.
She said she started reflecting on her role in growing the game in Japan amid her positive results earlier this year and then again in New York.
“While I was playing the U.S. Open and Kei (Nishikori) was doing well . . . I definitely was thinking about if little kids were watching and if they wanted to play tennis, too,” said Osaka, who’s scheduled to compete in the Toray Pan Pacific Open, which begins on Monday in Tachikawa.
“I’ve always thought that Kei was a super good role model on the men’s side and I wish that there was one on the women’s side. Hopefully I can be that role model.”
Osaka took most of her questions in Japanese during the 30-minute news conference — with some help from an interpreter — but answered in English. Such is the uniqueness of her situation, having lived in the U.S. since she was 3 years old and not being fluent in the language of the country she represents.
A different type of person might have struggled to connect with the Japanese press and fans, but Osaka appears to have won them over in much the same way she has everyone else — by being her relatable 20-year-old self. In the past she’s talked about her affinity for video games, Netflix and sleep, and chatted at length about internet memes.
Osaka received countless congratulatory text messages for her win but said Thursday that the one that stood out was from Nishikori.
A reporter asked what did Japan’s top-ranked male player write, perhaps expecting a detailed answer.
“He said ‘omedetou‘ … I said ‘arigatou,’ ” Osaka said, using the Japanese words for “congratulations” and “thank you.”
“He writes in, like, romaji, so I’m kind of confused and then I respond in hiragana,” she added, referring to the romanization of the Japanese written language and the phonetic way of writing it, drawing another chorus of laughter from the packed news conference.
It was another in a growing list of moments that have endeared her to tennis fans and the broader public. Another moment that emphasized that, even after climbing to the upper echelon of her sport, appearing on talk shows and being the focus of TV specials, she’s still the same awkward yet delightful young woman. She may not relish the spotlight, but it’s clear that it’s here to stay, and more “worst acceptance speeches” are sure to follow.
Staff writer Miya Tanaka contributed to this report.