Alipha Khan
It was not very long ago that the name Naomi Osaka had become a household name around the world. All that changed when Osaka won her first Grand Slam at the U.S. Open this September in a David versus Goliath showdown against tennis legend Serena Williams. This win made her the first Japanese woman to win the title in its history at the age of only 20. Before this, Osaka was playing multiple levels above anyone else, at one point winning 20 straight games.
On September 8, inside the Arthur Ashe Stadium during the biggest match of her career, Osaka took down Williams in the final match. As far as breakthroughs go, it is hard to imagine one bigger in scope and scale. All eyes were on her opponent Williams, who was at the time making a comeback after the birth of her first child the year before – if Williams won the title this year too, she was set to become the greatest tennis player of all time with 24 titular wins. But luck was on someone else’s side that day, as Osaka proved her skills on the court and defeated the biggest name in her field during her very first Grand Slam final. Neither Williams nor her countless fans at the stadium were having it. The crowds booed, and during the trophy ceremony, tournament organizers, officials and agents argued. Serena herself became the subject of controversy for going after the chair umpire and even making unfavourable comments about Osaka out of sheer frustration. It was a confusing and painful moment for Osaka who describes herself as shy and, in her own words, the “most awkward person in tennis”. In her tear-soaked victory speech, she said: “I know everyone was cheering for her and I’m sorry it had to end like this.”
Even now, when asked to recall the day, Osaka says little more than a detached “bittersweet.” Neither will the young pro disparage Serena, the player she admits is still her idol. “There’s a lot of stuff I want to say about, like, how I felt and whatever,” said Osaka. “But for me, I don’t know, I don’t know.”
Serena’s controversial meltdown may have taken away focus from the young champion’s success, but her career in the limelight has just gotten started. Naomi Osaka is the daughter of a Haitian father and Japanese mother who grew up mainly in Florida. Her older sister Mari is also a tennis player who is currently No. 326. As seen in a subsequent interview on Ellen hosted by Ellen Degeneres, her social introversion is extremely relatable and endearing as much as it is extreme – she wears headphones in the locker room not to listen to music, but to avoid conversation.
Osaka’s ascent has hit peak celebrity in Japan. Within days of her title, she signed a sponsorship deal with Nissan. Adidas reportedly also gave her the largest contract the brand has ever conferred on a female athlete. With the 2020 Olympics heading to Tokyo, she will be featured prominently in the run-up.
“I don’t expect myself to just win one Grand Slam. Not to be cocky or anything but I feel like the more confidence I put in myself, the more I play better, so I try to tell myself that if I believe in myself then there’s a lot of good things that will happen.”
True winner’s words were uttered by the sports star to this effect this autumn. One has to look forward to witnessing this talent goes up in the ranks.