It was less than a week after the 2018 U.S. Open final and Naomi Osaka, the newly crowned queen of tennis, had just arrived in Japan.
There were awkward smiles, staged photographs and the constant click of cameras as the first Japanese player to ever win a Grand Slam singles title had her first close-up with domestic media following that victory.
What did the burgeoning star — fresh off a drama-filled win over Serena Williams — think of her seemingly overnight rise to superstardom?
“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 told the throng of reporters, photographers and camera operators at a news conference in Yokohama. It was a sign of both the fame and discomfort to come.
Indeed, the camera shutters have hardly stopped clicking since that September day nearly three years ago.
Three more Grand Slam titles and a string of high-profile endorsements have followed, making Osaka one of the world’s most recognizable athletes — and also one of the richest. With a massive serve, powerful ground strokes and a knack for coming up big when the stakes are highest, it appears as though nothing and nobody can stop Osaka from etching her name on more Grand Slam trophies.
Yet all the while she has never seemed fully comfortable when handed a microphone, with tensions boiling over in Paris this spring when she decided she wouldn’t participate in post-match news conferences.
Now, as she heads into the Tokyo Games as one of the stars of Japan’s Olympic team, a role model for future generations and a favorite for women’s singles gold, how she handles the spotlight at her home games will invariably be a focal point of the story for Osaka — whose measured, steady performances on the court stand in stark contrast to her nervous and, at times, socially awkward demeanor when facing the press.
The Osaka brand
That Thursday news conference three years ago wasn’t Osaka’s only stop in Yokohama that day.
She also paid a visit to the headquarters of Nissan Motor Co., where she signed a three-year contract to be a global ambassador for the carmaker.
The sponsorship deals have only snowballed since then.
Today, Osaka is sponsored by a roster of firms that run the gamut from instant ramen-maker Nissin to luxury fashion brands such as Louis Vuitton and Tag Heuer.
These partnerships have made her the highest earning female athlete of all time, with Osaka pulling in $60 million over the 12 months to June, according to Forbes. All but $5 million of that came from endorsements. Only Tiger Woods, Roger Federer and Lebron James earned more from sponsors over that span, putting the 23 year-old, who was virtually unknown outside of tennis circles as recently as three years ago, in rarefied company.
“What she’s done is she’s built a unique brand. She’s young, she’s successful both on and off the court… she’s multicultural, she has a strong social media following that is growing,” says Patrick Walsh, an associate professor of sport management at Syracuse University. “So if you take a lot of those things altogether … that’s what companies are going to be interested in.”
But Osaka and her team haven’t been satisfied with merely putting her name next to established brands. They’ve also created brands of their own and joined upstart companies on the rise.
Already this year, Osaka has released a swimwear line in collaboration with Frankies Bikinis and announced she was launching Kinlo, a skincare company for people with melanated skin tones. Throw in equity stakes in sports drink firm BodyArmor and fitness device-maker Hyperice, and you have a very diverse portfolio.
“She’s becoming more of an enterprise,” Walsh says, comparing her path to retired tennis star Maria Sharapova and the late basketball great Kobe Bryant. “I think (Osaka) has potential to reach that level.”
Making an impression in Japan
As a female biracial athlete, the Japanese Haitian star has also left a unique mark on Japan, where society is both overwhelmingly homogenous and male-dominated.
Etsuko Ogasawara, executive director of the Japanese Center for Research on Women in Sport at Juntendo University, says Osaka’s success on the world stage has been an inspiration for young women and girls in Japan who are looking for a role model to follow.
When top athletes find success outside of Japan, “It’s easy to persuade the people to believe that anybody can do it, even Japanese,” Ogasawara says. “Sport has such a power to spread this kind of feeling.”
That power doesn’t appear to be lost on Osaka or her sponsors.
“I love the thought of a biracial girl in a classroom in Japan glowing with pride when I win a Grand Slam,” she wrote in a July 2020 op-ed for Esquire in which she also detailed her decision to take an active role in the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer. “I really hope that the playground is a friendlier place for her now that she can point to a role model and be proud of who she is. And dream big.”
The school scene Osaka noted in her essay could have been taken right out of an anti-bullying and anti-racism Nike advertisement that included a cameo by the tennis star. In the ad, three girls are depicted as being the victims of bullying because of their background but later find confidence through sport.
Celebrated by many, the ad also received heavy criticism in some corners of the internet in Japan, spotlighting issues over racism and discrimination in the country.
According to Shintaro Sato, an associate professor at Waseda University’s School of Sport Science, Osaka, who was born in Osaka but grew up in the United States, hasn’t fully connected with the older generation of Japanese sports fans.
People in their 60s and older are “kind of hesitant because of Naomi’s lack of language fluency and more importantly, Japanese culture,” Sato says.
“I think the younger generation supports Naomi very strongly, but (for) the older generation that’s not necessarily the case,” he says.
Sato also notes that older generations are perhaps less open to the idea that athletes like Osaka and basketball star Rui Hachimura are “Japanese” because they are biracial.
“Older generations, they have strong bias in terms of racial characteristics,” he says.
Osaka touched on that subject in the same piece for Esquire.
“In reality, biracial people — especially biracial athletes — are the future of Japan,” she wrote. “We (myself, Rui Hatchimura and others) have been embraced by the majority of the public, fans, sponsors, and media. We can’t let the ignorance of a few hold back the progressiveness of the masses. The love I feel from Japanese fans of all ages, especially the younger ones, has always been heart-warming.”
Uncomfortable in the spotlight?
Osaka may have become the face of tennis with her dominant performances on the court and likeable personality off it, but she has yet to appear fully at ease when handed a microphone.
After winning her first WTA tournament in Indian Wells, California, in 2018, Osaka stumbled and giggled through her victory speech, calling it “the worst acceptance speech of all time.”
Other occasions have been marked with tears rather than laughter.
After a controversial 2018 women’s final, many of the fans at New York’s Arthur Ashe Stadium booed as Osaka — rather than the American favorite Williams — accepted the winner’s trophy, bringing her to tears. And in July 2019, less than a year later and moments after crashing out of Wimbledon in the first round, she abruptly departed a news conference on the verge of crying.
Her decision to forego news conferences at this year’s French Open, citing mental health, was met with support from many corners of the sports world but also condemnation from the organizers of the four Grand Slams. She withdrew after her first-round match, writing in a Twitter post that she had suffered long bouts of depression since the 2018 U.S. Open.
“I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media,” she wrote in that same Tweet.
Tennis legend Chris Evert was still a teenager when she won her first Grand Slam title at the 1974 French Open.
“It’s suddenly fame and fortune. (Osaka is) one of the most celebrated athletes on the planet right now,” Evert said during a conference call late last month. “But (she is) very shy and introverted.”
Seiji Takaku, a professor of psychology at Soka University of America, applauds Osaka for her “gutsy” decision to withdraw from the French Open and skip Wimbledon, as well as for raising awareness of mental health issues faced by even the world’s most famous athletes.
“Those decisions were well-reasoned and not just based on short-term benefits but based on longer-term benefits not just for herself but also for other athletes suffering from mental health issues,” he says.
Still, it would be a stretch to say that Osaka has shied away from the spotlight entirely. Weeks after her French Open withdrawal, she appeared on the cover of Vogue Japan, while a Netflix documentary series starring Osaka debuted Friday.
Evidently, media appearances on Osaka’s terms are more favorable than ones where she’s forced to answer difficult questions after a big match. She has also stressed that she enjoys a positive relationship with most members of the press and that she didn’t intend to point the finger at journalists but rather at the stressful nature of post-match news conferences.
Takaku thinks she’ll learn to overcome her shyness with time, even if she’ll never be fully comfortable with public speaking.
“It doesn’t mean that she’s changing her personality,” he says. “She’s just learning the skills that are required to be a public figure.”
The spotlight on Osaka may never shine brighter than when she takes the court at the Tokyo Olympics in search of Japan’s first gold medal in the sport.
Court conditions should favor the world No. 2: She has won four of the past six hard-court Grand Slams and has a dominant 23-1 record on her preferred surface since August of last year.
Citing her powerful serve and devastating forehand, Osaka is “the most explosive and powerful player out there right now” with the exception of Williams, according to Evert. The American great withdrew from the Olympics late last month.
She’s also proven to be mentally resilient in the face of adversity and when extra attention is directed toward her.
A weaker player might have crumbled under the pressure of playing Williams in a maiden Grand Slam final, particularly given the distracting controversy involving Williams and the chair umpire, and a home crowd rooting for the U.S. athlete. But Osaka stayed focused and won in straight sets.
Likewise, at the 2020 U.S. Open, when she made international headlines for raising awareness about police brutality against African Americans, Osaka calmly went about her business and won the title, ensuring that she would be able to wear each of the seven masks bearing the names of Black victims that she had prepared for the tournament.
“Believe it or not, I am naturally introverted and do not court the spotlight,” Osaka wrote this month in an essay for Time magazine. “I always try to push myself to speak up for what I believe to be right, but that often comes at a cost of great anxiety.”
Last month, the International Olympic Committee confirmed that Olympians won’t be required to speak to the media in Tokyo, which might take some of the pressure off Osaka at these games.
Still, for the queen of tennis, Tokyo presents a fresh challenge as the biggest tournament of her career on Japanese soil. But with the country behind her in her quest for gold, and with the tournament being played on her favorite surface, don’t be surprised if Osaka rises to the occasion once again and lands atop the podium.
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