Naomi Osaka’s rise has been an uncomfortable climb at times, but the 23-year-old’s Zen mindset and increased gravity on and off the court leave her well prepared to be the face of women’s tennis.
The world number three is one win away from her fourth Grand Slam title when she faces American Jennifer Brady in the Australian Open final on Saturday in what could cap off a defining campaign.
Osaka resoundingly beat Serena Williams in the semifinals and looks destined to inherit the great American’s mantle as the face of tennis.
It was far from a year ago when a shaken Osaka felt the strain of expectations as her Australian Open title defense crumbled with a shock loss to 15-year-old Coco Gauff. in the third round.
“She seemed very nervous to me, she was under pressure, and she only looked like that because she wasn’t expressing her feelings,” said her trainer Wim Fissette.
Weeks later, Osaka was embarrassed after winning just three games against Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo in a Fed Cup draw.
âThere are just a lot of things that happened there around that time that really made me think about my life a lot,â she said.
“For what reason, I play tennis to prove things to other people or I play for fun because I like it.”
But things changed during the pandemic when Osaka gained a new perspective and became a vocal leader in the fight against racial injustice in the United States.
Her heightened gravity fueled Osaka on the pitch and she takes a 20-game unbeaten streak in Saturday’s final, a run that included winning the US Open title last year for the second time.
– “Lots of doubts” –
âI think the thing I’m most proud of now is that I’ve become mentally strong,â she said.
âI used to be really up and down. For my part, I had a lot of doubts about myself.
“I think the quarantine process and seeing everything that’s going on in the world, for me, that puts a lot of perspective into it.”
Once shy and uncomfortable in the spotlight, Osaka has used his growing stature to weigh in on controversial topics at Melbourne Park, even condemning former Tokyo Olympics boss Yoshiro Mori for his sexist comments.
Osaka has become the richest female athlete in the world, surpassing her idol Williams, but she has maintained a humble and respectful attitude amid her rise to stardom.
Born on October 16, 1997, by coincidence, in Osaka, Japan, she still had a year left before settling permanently in the United States.
His Haitian father Leonard met and married his mother Tamaki after decamping to Japan from New York where he had studied.
Now based in Florida, Osaka has dual Japanese-American nationality.
Osaka became a high profile player after making her Grand Slam debut at the 2016 Australian Open.
It took him a few years to find his feet before stunning Williams with a straight-set victory in a controversial 2018 US Open final and backing that up with a Melbourne Park triumph a few months later.
Osaka, at only 21, became world number one, but she felt dissatisfied.
âI think it also put a lot of pressure on me because I kind of felt like it was me against the world,â she said.
This led to a difficult time where she felt overwhelmed with expectations until she adopted a more relaxed demeanor.
And now she has the world of tennis at her feet.
âI used to weigh my whole existence if I won or lost a tennis match,â she said.
“It’s just not what I feel anymore.”