The Rising Tennis Star Who Shouldn't Be in the Shadows

The Rising Tennis Star Who Shouldn't Be in the Shadows

Naomi Osaka of Japan in action against Serena Williams of the United States in the Women's Singles Final at Arthur Ashe Stadium in the 2018 U.S. Open Tennis on Sept. 8, 2018, in New York City.

SourceTim Clayton/Getty

Why you should care

Because Naomi Osaka has a powerful story in her own right.

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As the sky darkened and lights glowed on Saturday evening, fans watched a complex drama unfold on the courts of Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, New York. Embedded in the showdown between Grand Slam finalists Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka and the umpire presiding over them, Carlos Ramos, were glaring clashes of race and gender, power and privilege.

By now, you’ve probably heard that Williams’ attempt at a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title fell short amid a broiling dispute between her and Ramos over three code violations. And while the dispute raises important conversations about race and gender, Osaka has been unfairly eclipsed by the fallout.

So, for a moment, let’s put aside the Williams debate and dive under the skin of this new champion, who even felt like she had to apologize for her victory. The charming, goofy 20-year-old provides plenty to unpack. Often pictured flashing peace signs in her Instagram photos and clad in stylish outfits (which she has no shame repeating, a promising sign for us ordinary folks), her feed is filled with an abundance of emojis, a lot of “thank you” captions and more than a few selfies.

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Hello sir 👋

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Osaka doesn’t show a penchant for too much polish; she uses Harry Potter references on Twitter and gives her followers candid updates when she’s feeling pressured (both in English and Japanese). When discussing emotional ups and downs, she told GQ that it takes her a while to absorb things. Put simply, she’s refreshing.

But Osaka’s background is far from simple. She was born in Osaka, Japan, to a Japanese mother, Tamaki Osaka, and a Haitian-American father, Leonard François. Athleticism runs in the family. She was trained by her father, and her older sister, Mari, is also a professional tennis player. The two have played side by side in doubles.

Osaka’s family moved to the U.S. when she was 3. She identifies as a Black woman of Japanese and Haitian descent, with dual citizenship in the U.S. and Japan. Though Osaka isn’t fluent, this doesn’t stop her from trying to answer interview questions in less-than-perfect Japanese when speaking to Japanese outlets, according to The New York Times. Being biracial — or hafu in Japanese, from the English word “half” — is far from easy in a nation like Japan, which values racial purity and homogeneity.

And these cultural expectations run deep in her family. When Osaka’s Japanese grandfather learned that his daughter was involved with a Black man, he became furious. Osaka’s mother was not in contact with her family for more than a decade as a result. Navigating this complexity is not lost on Osaka, who told USA Today in 2016: “When I go to Japan, people are confused. From my name, they don’t expect to see a Black girl.”

Although she trains at Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Florida, Osaka plays under the Japanese flag. In interviews, she’s made it clear that she’s proud to represent both the Japanese and Haitian sides of her family. Now as Japan’s first winner of a Grand Slam, she’s being celebrated by a nation that didn’t fully accept her before.

Despite the weight of Osaka’s identity, she never takes herself too seriously. After practice, you can find her playing hours of video games with Mari, as reported by GQ, not to mention her whimsical social media feeds. But contrary to her free and endearing nature on camera, she’s stoic on the court. “Just genetically my face is like this,” she said, according to News.com.au, laughing. “I’m sorry.” That’s not to say her mind is still. “In my brain, I’m going, ‘Oh, my God, why?’ about like 90 percent of the time,” she joked.

When she steps onto the court, Osaka is an aggressive force to be reckoned with. She’s one of the few female tennis players whose forehand tops 100 miles per hour, according to The New York Times, and this powerful stroke has been essential to her success. In last weekend’s final Grand Slam match, her strokes never relented, and she hit winners on the run. She’s known for a wicked first serve and is likely to become even more formidable as she develops a net game.

Saturday was a watershed moment. Osaka once said she had done a report in third grade about her childhood idol Williams, complete with coloring. Now they were sharing the sport’s biggest stage. In the first set, Osaka outplayed Williams by a significant margin. Early in the second set, Ramos issued the code violation for coaching, which was the catalyst for the acts that followed. Osaka stayed focused amid the disputes as the match unfolded, and it was a searing wide serve that Osaka sent over the net at 114 miles per hour — which Williams tipped, but deflected out — that clinched her win, a moment that does not deserve to be overshadowed.

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