Analysis: Already a star, on court and off, Osaka eyes more

HOWARD FENDRICH
·4-min read

Naomi Osaka already is a star at age 23. She has the four Grand Slam titles, the record-breaking endorsement deals and the willingness to speak her mind to prove it.

Now the question is: Where does she go from here?

It was telling that the second question posed to Osaka at the news conference following her 6-4, 6-3 victory over Jennifer Brady in the Australian Open final Saturday — after she took a sip of celebratory bubbly that she said made her “feel a little bit funny” — was about turning in better performances at Wimbledon and the French Open.

After all, each of her major championships so far came on hard courts at Melbourne Park (2019, 2021) or the U.S. Open (2018, 2020). She never has been past the third round at the All England Club or Roland Garros.

Even more revealing was Osaka’s response.

Asked whether her first non-hard-court Slam trophy will come on clay or grass, she said: “Hopefully clay, because it’s the one that’s sooner.”

She is not about biding her time or patient improvement.

And she’s been thinking about where she needs to improve.

“It was one of her goals this year to play well outside of the hard courts. She’s still very young. It’s time to grow on those surfaces. She also believes she can do well and, I’m sure, with the right preparation, with a few, maybe, tactical (and) technical adjustments, we’re going to do well,” said her coach, Wim Fissette. “She’s the person that wants to grow."

Part of what makes Osaka special is embracing challenges and knowing what she stands for.

That’s been the case off the court and on.

With a racket in her hand, it’s about, as Fissette put it, being able to “love big matches and big moments.”

Osaka wanted to face 23-time major champion Serena Williams in the semifinals, for example.

No fear there.

“She was like when I bring my kids to the toy store: They are very excited. And Naomi was excited to go on court with Serena. It’s just beautiful to see,” Fissette said. “At the end, this is what you train for, right? To be on the biggest stage with the best player of all time, Serena."

Away from the game, Osaka says, it took time to find her voice and express her views.

She was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, and she moved to the United States when she was 3. Last August, she was the first tennis pro to join athletes from other sports in walking out to protest the police shooting of a Black man in Wisconsin.

“Before I am an athlete,” Osaka tweeted at the time, “I am a black woman.”

On her way to the U.S. Open title in September, Osaka wore masks bearing the names of seven Black victims of violence to draw attention to racism and police brutality.

On Saturday, Osaka was asked whether there was a message she wanted associated with her latest triumph, which made her 4 for 4 in Slam finals.

“Honestly, for me, when everything happened in New York, I got really scared, because I felt like it put me into this light that was a non-athletic light that I’ve never been in before,” she said. “So I feel like there is a lot of topics that people suddenly started asking me about that I completely didn’t know about at all. For me, I only like to talk when I’m knowledgeable about the subject or at least know, like, one tiny grain of what I’m about to start talking about. So for me, I just came into this tournament just thinking purely about tennis.”

And yet, in the aftermath of winning the trophy, she was ready to think about a larger role, too.

Many looked at her win against Williams as a passing of the mantle. Osaka also won their meeting in the 2018 U.S. Open final — who could forget that one? — and has eclipsed the 39-year-old American as the highest-earning female athlete because of millions in sponsorship deals.

But to Osaka, Williams is still, and always will be, an idol and an inspiration, a player whose example she wanted to follow.

And the best way to repay that, Osaka figures, is to hold that role for others.

“Hopefully I play long enough to play a girl that said that I was once her favorite player or something,” Osaka said. “For me, I think that’s the coolest thing that could ever happen to me. ... That’s how the sport moves forward.”

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Howard Fendrich covers tennis for The Associated Press. Write to him at hfendrich@ap.org or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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