Naomi Osaka Will Serve You Now
The 20-year-old is shaking up the tennis world. Kerber? Dominated. Sharapova? Took the L. Just don’t call Osaka the next Serena. Meet the phenom who’s remaking the sport in her own image.August 27, 2018
Naomi Osaka won't acknowledge she's cool. She prefers the term "chill" instead.
Cool is what you see. Chill is more of a state of mind. Dive into Osaka's social media life, and you'll see examples of what makes her cool (not to mention fun): her unsuccessful attempt at playing pool, her guest DJ sets, her love of swings, her dog's unbothered reaction to the #whatthefluffchallenge. She is not afraid to laugh at herself, especially in front of a camera.
"I just feel like if people enjoy a person, if a person's personality is really good, then—I don't know—I feel like there's going to be more people happy to be around them," she says. "So I try my best, and I know that sometimes my humor doesn't really come across. Sometimes people just stare at me, and I have to explain my joke. I've had that happen a lot of times, but for the most part I try to be really...not upbeat but happy."
Osaka has the unusual ability to own all of who she is—whether online or…well, online? While most of her 110,000-plus followers on social media know the fun, the travel, the grueling workouts, they might not be as familiar with Osaka's secret Instagram account, nao.chiii (Naochi), which is as much a historical account of her travels as it is an artistic representation of where she is in life. The gallery of photos allows her followers to see the world through her eyes, from the Louvre in Paris to portraits of school-age children in her dad's native country of Haiti.
In one photo, shot from ground level, Osaka sneaks a peek at a player warming up in front of a sparse crowd, awaiting action to commence on the clay surface. "Not a tv, found a spot where all the photographers take pics," the caption reads. In another, she captures herself in the middle of an overhead smash. "Don't think I was allowed to take pictures in here lmao," she writes. "I was practicing action shots. this was from a while ago last year."
Her secret account was largely inspired by her dad, Leonard Francois, who is a videographer and her former tennis coach. Osaka's hitting coach, Sascha Bajin, supports her desires to achieve work-life balance and openly share her experiences with the world. He sees value in her being more outgoing. "I hope she does enjoy her life a little bit more where we are because tennis is a tough life," he says. "All the travels, all the places we see, I do believe she can get a little more out of it and have a little bit more fun and enjoy life."
Amateur photography may just be a hobby, but it helps Osaka find balance.
If you've been following tennis in 2018, it is easy to understand why Osaka might need an artistic reprieve. Her ascent has been sharp and captivating. Not to mention jolting—especially for a 20-year-old. This year, she played her way into a ranking of 17th in the world (her highest to date), up from No. 68. She won her first pro title at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, in March. Then, days later, she defeated her lifelong idol, Serena Williams, in the first round at the Miami Open. Osaka has netted nearly $2 million in prize money in 2018. (She's also got deals with Adidas, Nissin and, most recently, Citizen.) She's become a global phenomenon as much for who she is on the court as who she is off it: quirky, honest and reserved. She's young and of Japanese-Haitian descent, which makes her a rare commodity in a sport continuously striving to overcome the perception that it is not culturally diverse. She has the elusive, difficult-to-quantify "it" factor.
For as much promise as she has shown, particularly in the last year, Osaka isn't one to acknowledge she's really that good.
She volleys a compliment or superlative lobbed her way like an inbound ball on match point—with a swift, measured strike. It's not that she doesn't like praise; it's just that she's humble. As humble as she is hungry. She often responds with two-syllable self-deprecating replies—a cavalier "OK," a contrite "sorry." Or various other forms of modesty.
Never mind her trademark, difficult-to-return, 120 mph power serves. Or her massive forehands that whiz by opponents. Or her precision. Her athleticism. The remarkable skill set that has garnered her attention since she was 16 years old.
Osaka is confident. But she's honest about who she is and where she is at this point in her career, too. Dethroning Serena?
"Sorry," she says.
"I just feel it's something I'd have to be apologetic about."
"I still want Serena and Venus to be the main guys."
Though it won't be long before Osaka will be one of the "main guys" herself.
Right now, however, she's mostly shy—and happy to be resting. She finished the first of two sweat-inducing two-hour training sessions—which included hitting balls with Bajin and building strength, agility and endurance with her personal trainer, Abdul Sillah—in front of a group of young, wide-eyed summer tennis campers who excitedly watched. (Also on-site is a crew from a Japanese media outlet, including the retired tennis player-turned-TV personality Shuzo Matsuoka. They've flown 15 hours just to get a 30-minute sit-down with Osaka.)
For them, Osaka represents possibility and the future.
"I know that there are new people that are going to come and do good, and of course I want to be one of them," she says. "I feel like I'm already one of them."
Osaka was born in Japan but moved to the United States in 2001 and picked up a racket soon after. She was raised in New York and Florida. Osaka holds dual citizenship in Japan and the United States and anticipates winning gold for Japan at the 2020 Tokyo Games. In addition to her Haitian father, her mother, Tamaki, is Japanese. "I was three when I started playing tennis," Osaka says. "It's the only thing I've really known and the thing that I'm best at."
She understood the sport well. Her older sister, Mari, also played. (Now 22, Mari is also a professional tennis player.) In 2013, Naomi turned pro at 15 and was tasked with playing against people 10 years or more her senior. A year later, she made a name for herself with an impressive first-round win over 2011 U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur at the Bank of West Classic in Stanford, California. Courtney Nguyen, senior editor at WTA Insider, worked for Sports Illustrated at the time and hadn't seen Naomi play before but recalls being impressed. "She was absolutely electric in that match," she says. "Huge serve, monster forehand, pretty athletic. She absolutely had it."
Osaka's victory over Stosur proved not to be a fluke. Since then, she has racked up wins against Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber, Maria Sharapova, Coco Vandeweghe and Venus Williams. "You put her out on a big court against a big name, and more often than not, she's going to perform, outperform herself," Nguyen says.
It would be one thing for Osaka to outperform her own expectations—and the expectations of others—on the court. She puts the work in. And has for a long time. "I feel like I have made it my goal to be more focused every match," she said earlier this year at a press conference. "... I think it's paid off." But what has been unexpected is how quickly she's exceeded expectations when she doesn't have a racket in hand.
In March, after Osaka dominated the final of the BNP Paribas Open, she addressed a capacity crowd of about 16,000 for a post-match victory speech. It was a two-minute expression of gratitude with choppy thoughts and nervous laughs. "Worst acceptance speech of all time," Osaka says. In addition to her rhythmic nature on the court, accented by grunts and the screech of sneakers, she has an offbeat side, too. A personality that has entertained and endeared fans worldwide. "Quintessentially quirky Naomi," Nguyen says.
The speech was amazing to watch, which might explain why it went viral. "There are certain situations where for sure nobody would've known who I was last year, but this year they do," Osaka said of her rising fame.
To those who know Osaka well, and those who have encountered her in person, it's no surprise she has captivated the masses. Her demeanor and candor are refreshing. But her personality is also shy, reserved. She doesn't Google herself for fear of what she may find. ("Too scared," she says.) Google includes both fact and fiction, after all. Osaka prefers to learn about her interests IRL and overcome her introversion by trying activities that suit her sense of adventure and natural competitiveness.
"I've done a lot of things that I wasn't expecting myself to do," she says.
Osaka's dedication is palpable, but she also refuses to allow tennis to consume every waking second of her life. "Tennis is my job," she says, "similar to how a normal person has a 9-to-5 job."
When she clocks out, she feels more free to be herself. "When I'm off the court," she says, "everything relaxes, and I don't really care that much about what I do or what I say."
It's this element of composure and self-awareness that makes Osaka a refreshing sports figure. On her own time, she is an avid Overwatch gamer and received VIP access at the Overwatch League's inaugural championship this year. She's also zip-lined. Rock-climbed. Gone ATVing in a dune-ridden desert. One time, after losing a bet to her coach, she danced the "floss" in Tokyo's Shibuya crossing, one of the busiest intersections in the world. "I feel like the more comfortable a person is the less they'll try to do better to change themselves," she says. "Someone that's willing to do something outside of their comfort level, they are taking the risk. But for sure something is going to happen."
Bajin, Serena Williams' former hitting partner, has encouraged Osaka to take chances, to come into her own on her own terms. "I want to take credit for it because what I am pretty good at is…I can make players feel very comfortable about themselves," he says. He has gotten closer to her and learned her tendencies since joining her in December. "By spending time with her off court a little bit, I get to tap into her mindset a little bit more," Bajin says.
Nguyen believes Bajin and Osaka's relationship has been good for her. "Sascha is very much a mentor," Nguyen says. "He wants someone he can teach the ways of the world. He's a total Mr. Miyagi."
There has been tangible progress in Osaka's development since then. Bajin says she has matured quickly and gained more confidence in her skill set; she has also showcased better shot selection. Though Osaka's power is her strength, she's been criticized for relying on it too much. "She knows she doesn't have to hit every ball as hard as she can," Bajin says. "You basically just have to calm her down a little bit."
There's no need to try to terminate every rally quickly—something Osaka used to be more prone to doing. "I can hit a crosscourt looping ball, buy myself some time, get cross court and run some more," Nguyen says, channeling Osaka. She sees in Osaka a new confidence that has come with her maturity. "Being faster, fitter and stronger, she knows she can hang for three or four more shots," Nguyen says. "I don't think she believed she could do that before, but I think under Sascha she does."
When it comes time to return to training at Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Florida, Osaka is focused on what lies ahead. After all, it's hard-court season—the surface she loves most. "I grew up on hard courts, and that's technically the court I'm most comfortable on." She's nearly two weeks removed from her third-round defeat to Kerber at Wimbledon—a humbling experience. "I'm kind of a perfectionist," she says. "I kind of took that loss pretty hard."
Now, her sights are set on the U.S. Open.
For Osaka, tennis is more than a top-20 ranking. "I'm not looking too much at rankings. I kind of just want to win more tournaments," she says. Her coach echoes this sentiment: "Any tournament we show up, we go there with the mindset of winning it," Bajin says.
At practice, Osaka strikes the ball with determination and emphasis. Sure, she wants to win. But she also wants to keep bettering herself. "I just really want to play good tennis, and hopefully someone's entertained by that," she says.
If entertainment is her goal, then she has already succeeded in many respects. She has dazzled on the court; her impressive victory over Serena Williams was thrilling to watch.
But how Osaka responded to beating her idol was just as fascinating and revelatory. There was no colorful presser or loss of composure. Instead, she curbed her youthful exuberance, opting for a more chill approach to tease her excitement. A simple Instagram photo of her and Williams. The caption? "Omg."
Meanwhile, on Osaka's secret IG account, radio silence. It was as if she had been there before. Or more precisely, it seemed as if she expected it to be a normal thing.
Shana Renee is a Sports Cultural Analyst and the founder of AllSportsEverything.com. Her work has been featured in Black Enterprise, espnW, Essence and MSNBC, among other outlets. A passionate New York Jets, Knicks and Yankees fan, follow her sports talk on Twitter and Instagram.