February 23, 2021
WRITTEN BY:
Melinda Head

Leveling up with Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka is a phenomenon on and off the court. Her tennis game, humility, and social activism are next level.

This past weekend Naomi Osaka won the Australian Open Grand Slam Title beating Serena Williams, her idol, in the semi-finals and Jennifer Brady in straight sets in the final. Osaka is now 4-0 in major finals, as she takes her impressive, rightful, hard-earned place in women’s singles at the young age of only 23.  

Osaka was the first Japanese tennis player (male or female) to win a Grand Slam Title in 2018 and, since doing so, she has catapulted to being the highest earning female athlete in the world.

Naomi Osaka - GQ Cover
GQ Cover, Illustration of Naomi by Her Sister

In tennis, a Grand Slam final win is the Holy Grail. Naomi took her first step towards this Dream World when she won her first Grand Slam Title at the U.S. Open in 2018, pocketing $3.8 million. It was a controversial event - Serena Williams, was eventually penalized a game and fined for allegedly receiving coaching during the final, as well as for racquet abuse and verbal abuse. Emotionally devastated, the teary-eyed tennis superstar said:

“She (Osaka) played well and this is her first Grand Slam. Let’s make this the best moment we can. Let’s be positive, congratulations Naomi”.

Completely taken aback by the controversial situation and the scorn of the NY crowd, Osaka modestly said:

“… I am sorry. I know that everyone was cheering for her (Serena) and I am sorry it had to end like this. I just want to say thank you for watching the match … It was always my dream to play Serena in the U.S. Open finals … I am really grateful I was able to play with you (Serena), thank you”.

Two extremely classy women made the best of a difficult moment to uplift each other. Women empowering women!

Osaka is no One Hit Wonder. She went on to win the 2019 Australian Open, the 2020 U.S. Open (again), the 2021 Australian Open, and reached Number 1 in the World Tennis Association (WTA) ratings. We could go on and on about her successes on the court, but her contributions to the world extend well beyond tennis.  

Naomi Osaka immigrated to the U.S. from Japan as a toddler. Her mother is Japanese and her father Haitian. Both Naomi and her pro-tennis sister, Mari, were initially coached by their dad, Leonard. Following in the steps of the Williams’ family was always the plan.

She has been featured on the cover of Time magazine, GQ, and Vogue, and will be the face of the COVID-delayed 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Naomi Osaka Time Cover

She recently welcomed the resignation of Tokyo Olympics chief, Yoshiro Mori, after he commented that women talk too much.

“I feel like it’s really good because you’re pushing forward. Barriers are being broken down, especially for females.” (Naomi Osaka)

This quiet, unassuming 23-year-old, who Williams has affectionately called “very dangerous”, is also a vocal anti-racism activist. I guess she knows a thing or two about that, being from a mixed-race heritage. This heritage is particularly unusual in the country she represents (Japan), considered to be one of the most racially homogeneous societies on the planet.

“My dad's Haitian, so I grew up in a Haitian household in New York. I lived with my grandma. And my mom's Japanese and I grew up with the Japanese culture, too, and if you're saying American, I guess because I lived in America, I also have that, too.” (Naomi Osaka)

Her first public move supporting social justice and racial equality was to withdraw from her semi-final match during the Western & Southern Open in New York to protest racial injustice, spurred by the death of George Floyd. This was followed by Osaka boldly wearing a series of black masks at the 2020 U.S. Open tennis tournament, each mask with the names of victims of police brutality. They included: Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile, and Tamir Rice. Most of us thought her sponsors would run for the hills, fearful of harming their brands – they didn’t.

Naomi Osaka Social Justice Statement Masks
Naomi Osaka - Social Justice Statement Masks

“None of these deaths had to happen. For me, I just want everyone to know the names more.” (Naomi Osaka)

“I feel like I’m a vessel in order to spread awareness.” (Naomi Osaka)

Off court, Osaka is modestly delightful. In her early years on the public stage, she was considered to be very shy and reserved, so much so that her former coach, Sascha Bajin, mistook her quietness for Diva-ness. Osaka has overcome a lot of that shyness while becoming a leading activist in professional tennis.

Her first, and only, boyfriend is Grammy-nominated rapper Cordae Dunston, who calls her his “lil Supahstar”. He knew nothing of her tennis background before they first met. They make a lovely modern couple.

Naomi and rapper boyfriend Cordae
Naomi and Rapper Boyfriend Cordae

When her body needs a break, Naomi turns to gaming: Minecraft, Skyrim and Overwatch are her favorites.

Her likeness has been made into a Japanese Anime character, and an Osaka Barbie doll was released by Mattel in 2019. All of this to a woman who doesn’t think she is a star (yet). I, for one, can’t wait to see what is next for this amazing young woman.

Naomi Osaka Anime Character
 Anime Character - "Unrivalled Naomi Tenkaichi"

Osaka Barbie
Naomi Osaka Barbie Figure

Join The Conversation