Naomi Osaka: At the top for years to come. A portrait

 Naomi Osaka: At the top for years to come.  A portrait

Australian Open winner
Charismatic, iconic, successful. Naomi Osaka is so much more than just a tennis star

Naomi Osaka after her victory in the Australian Open final
© Patrick Hamilton / AFP

She has just won her fourth Grand Slam title at the Australian Open. Charismatic Japanese Naomi Osaka isn’t just a tennis super star – she’s a multicultural icon.

From Klaus Bellstedt

© The  “walk-on-court”, the walk of the tennis professionals through the catacombs out onto the court, is celebrated like a separate event at the big tournaments. Cameras accompany every step. © The  audience at the screens should be as close as possible before it starts. Sometimes interesting things can be observed.

In Melbourne at the Australian Open, Naomi Osaka could be seen on Saturday evening, local time shortly before the final, as she very slowly paced the tunnel of the Rod Laver Arena, heavily packed with her oversized tennis bag on her back. To the right and left of her there were large, luminous columns with the names of all previous winners of the Grand Slam tournament. Osaka had already won in Melbourne in 2019. So the Japanese woman was about to pass her own name. When the time came, the 23-year-old’s left hand shot out and touched the column for a millisecond.

Less than an hour and a half later, Osaka had won the Australian Open in 2021 with a sovereign two-set win against the surprise finalist Jennifer Brady from the USA. “I wanted to make a connection to my success two years ago,” she said afterwards of the scene in the tunnel. Osaka has been inextricably linked to success for some time now. And this state of affairs will probably continue for a long time.


 The  new boss of women’s tennis

For the fourth time Osaka has won a major tournament. In 2019, after her first triumph Down Under, she reached the top of the women’s world rankings for the first time. Also because she plays fewer tournaments than others, she slipped a bit in the ranking in the meantime. On Monday she moved up from 3rd place to 2nd place, with the Australian Ashley Barty still leading. Unlike the men, the order of the women’s world rankings does not allow any conclusions to be drawn about the star factor of the players. Serena Williams was the outshining actor for decades. For Osaka it still is.

After her success over Brady, she was asked if the face of tennis would finally change in her favor. “No, not at all,” was Osaka’s short answer. That was politically correct. In truth, the Japanese took over the reign in women’s tennis at the latest after her semi-final success over Williams at this year’s Australian Open. “For me, women’s tennis has a new boss,” said seven-time Grand Slam winner Justine Henin on the sidelines of the Melbourne tournament. One does not like to contradict it.

Against racism and police violence

Osaka, who was born in the Japanese city of the same name, but emigrated to the USA with her parents at the age of three, has not just been a global star since today – also because it repeatedly attracts attention away from the tennis court. Last year she became something of a tennis activist after the violent death of African American George Floyd and the police shooting at Jacob Blake. She uses her popularity and reach to openly denounce racism. Before her matches at the US Open, she wore masks with the names of victims of police violence. At another tournament, she threatened to boycott a game – and thus aroused additional attention to the institutionalized violence against blacks in the United States. “If I can get a discussion going in a predominantly white sport, I see it as a step in the right direction,” Osaka said at the time.

In the country where she was born, Osaka’s growing commitment to issues beyond her sport was viewed critically, at least in parts of the strongly conservative society. Athletes should concentrate on their sport, that’s still a lot of thinking. ©

 The  fact that Osaka’s relationship to her country is ambivalent is also due to her origin. Her mother is Japanese and her father is a dark-skinned Haitian. ©

 The  23-year-old understands the language, but does not speak it fluently. In Melbourne she answered the questions of the Japanese reporters exclusively in English. So how Japanese is Osaka? ©

 The y argue about this question in their homeland.

Osaka is a multi-cultural young woman who has nothing to do with it: “This way of thinking bores me because it is not up to date,” she once told the New York Times. She would much rather do things that she enjoyed. Osaka recently bought into an American women’s soccer team. Her passion for fashion was also now reflected at the Australian Open. Together with her sponsor, she designed an ultra-stylish tennis outfit. For her fans, the charismatic Osaka is also a style icon. In Japan she recently got her own manga character.

Of course, Osaka is now also the managing director of a multi-million dollar and still flourishing Ich-AG. Her advertising contracts poured her 37.4 million euros into her cash register in 2020. According to Forbes, this makes her the top earner in her sport. Time magazine named her in the list of the 100 most influential people last year. In spite of all this, even in the hours of her greatest successes, she always seems humble, almost humble. Perhaps that is her greatest gift besides her tennis talent.

“I hope I can play until a girl will say to me that I am her favorite player. That would really be the coolest,” said Osaka after her victory at the Australian Open on Saturday night. ©

 The n she went off the podium.

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Naomi Osaka top years portrait


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