Australian Open favorite Naomi Osaka heads to Melbourne seeking a fourth Grand Slam title to further fuel her ascent toward the top of the women’s game on court and amplify her voice off it.
The Japanese star won the last major of 2020 in New York, arriving for each of her matches at the U.S. Open wearing a face mask bearing the name of a different Black American who had died as result of racial injustice.
Osaka has been an outspoken supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, both in Japan and the United States, where she lives, using her profile to advance the cause.
“I’m vocal because I believe in the movement and want to try to use my platform to facilitate change,” Osaka told Reuters last year.
Her voice is particularly powerful not only due to her on-court success but also because of a raft of sponsors, including the recently added watchmaker Tag Heuer and business tool Workday, who are eager get behind the 23-year-old.
Osaka is now the world’s highest-paid female athlete, supplanting her hero and rival Serena Williams, although she believes the American is still the game’s leading player.
“I think I’m one of the new people … As long as Serena’s here, I think she’s the face of women’s tennis,” Osaka said at a news conference on Sunday.
She has a long way to go to match Williams’ 23 Grand Slam crowns. Although a second Australian Open title — Osaka triumphed in Melbourne in 2019 — would leave only the Williams sisters, with Venus Williams sitting on seven majors, as the only active female players with more Grand Slam titles.
However, following exhibition matches in Adelaide, Osaka admitted to being a little rusty.
“I feel like there’s a lot of shots that I’m missing,” said the world No. 3, who last played competitively at the U.S. Open in September.
“I would love to be able to do them properly, be confident with how I feel about it.”
Osaka will also be keen to avoid the sort of capitulation she suffered at last year’s Australian Open, when she lost to American teenager Coco Gauff in the third round.
Osaka said she had buckled under the pressure of being the defending champion and called the loss “a wake-up call.”
As Osaka showed last year at Flushing Meadows, she can also feed off the attention and pressure. If she can harness her power, both physical and mental, in Melbourne, she will be difficult to stop.
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