Naomi Osaka has her own trails to blaze
As a woman of color in the world of tennis, scrutiny and expectations will be sky-high
Naomi Osaka has been on my mind. She won the last two Grand Slam singles tournaments, got ranked No. 1 by the WTA and then lost the next match in the next tournament she played. And, along the way, she or her handlers fired Sascha Bajin, the coach who’d helped her gain Grand Slam success in the US Open last summer and in the Australian Open earlier this year. She says firing Bajin is her way of choosing happiness over success.
At 21, she is moving fast. But not so fast that she might not be fitted for the same stories applied for so long to her idol Serena Williams, whom she beat at the US Open final last year, leaving both women in tears.
Murmurs inside her head sometimes plague Osaka doing her matches, some sportswriters say, just as Williams has been criticized for talking back to her inner demons during matches. Time and her tennis tournament success will tell how much Osaka will have to quiet her demons to win. Williams has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, a record for the Open era.
What is true is that it is hard to outhit Osaka in tennis matches, as Madison Keys found out while losing to her in last year’s US Open semifinals.
She was born in Japan and reared in the United States. With a Japanese mother and Haitian father, Osaka is the first woman from either country to be ranked No. 1 by the WTA. Her mother had been scorned and shunned by her parents in Japan, but her Asian heritage and her success have been embraced around the world. A citizen of the United States and Japan, she competes for the Land of the Rising Sun internationally. She understands Japanese better than she speaks it. And it could be, for now, that she understands the language of being an adult better than she can express herself in that language during matches.
Like the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, Osaka could be at the beginning of a saga that will twist and turn for years to come. Or she could win some Grand Slams and become a tennis star, only to fall to earth and out of her sport, the way Ana Ivanovic has after winning the 2008 French Open.
Whatever she does, Osaka deserves her own story, a story that she tells in her own way. Hers may be a continuation of the Williams sisters’ story, just as the Williams sisters wrote chapters in tennis and society that Althea Gibson, Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe began.
But Osaka, a 5-foot-11 baseline blaster, writes her own story with each victory and each loss and how she responds to them. In that way, she’s a lot like the sports greats of the past. She’s a lot like you and me, too.