Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams 2.0

Dec 17, 2021, 6:00:00 AM | by Steven Oliveira

Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams 2.0
Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka’s dad knew his daughter should be a tennis player when he watched Serena Williams play. Osaka grew up playing tennis, with posters of Serena hung on her walls, and she eventually made a name for herself when she beat her idol, though she was already better than her in many areas of the game.

Naomi Osaka lifted her first Grand Slam trophy – the 2018 US Open – to whistling and booing in Flushing Meadows. Why that? Because she beat American idol Serena Williams, who was on a run to beat the absolute Grand Slam title record. Serena was given a warning for coaching by Portuguese umpire Carlos Ramos, and a game penalty for abusing him verbally. It was unfair to 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, who became the overall first Japanese player to win a major competition; she had become famous a few months before when she won the Indian Wells Masters against Russian player Daria Kasatkina. It was even more unfair that she had nothing to do with this fight, and that she literally outplayed Serena (6-2, 6-4). Serena Williams herself knew it; she asked the crowd to stop their mess and respect the new queen of New York: “Let's make this the best moment we can and get through it and give credit where credit is due. Let's not boo anymore. Congratulations Naomi.” And booing turned into clapping. It would have been too bad that Naomi Osaka’s tennis birth was tarnished like that. Ironically, Osaka is now the American crowd’s favourite.

Play it like Serena

Naomi Osaka’s history is not only connected to Serena Williams’ through the 2018 US Open; it is even likely that she would still be expecting a first Grand Slam title if it was not for Serena. Let’s travel back in time. In 1999, Serena and her older sister Venus beat Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova and won the French Open doubles. Léonard François, who watched the match on TV, was amazed and had an epiphany: his daughters, Naomi and Mari, respectively 2 and 3 years old, would follow their footsteps; it did not matter that he had never touched a racket, nor that his daughters could barely walk. From that moment on, the Osaka family would be about tennis, and tennis only. Naomi and Mari would practice 24/7; they even moved from Long Island to Fort Lauderdale so that they could join the Harold Solomon Tennis Academy. They gave their youth up to become tennis players. Naomi’s only friend is Mari, and vice versa.

Just like Richard Williams, Léonard François never missed any of his daughters’ practices; just like Serena and Venus’ father, he had a huge impact on his daughters’ choices; he shaped them to help them reach the top of world’s tennis. He advised them to represent Japan, their birth country, instead of the USA, where the family moved in 2000. He built their temper on the court. Naomi, who is shy and quiet, was forced to shout: ‘Come on!’ after every point, just like Serena had to do. She’d even get a coin every time she did. Cyril Saulnier, Naomi Osaka’s ex-coach, confirms how influent Léonard François has been: “It was hard to communicate because she is shy. Many of my messages had to transit through her dad. He had a lot of influence off-court, especially on her attitude.” She has obviously learnt her lessons: “One thing struck me: she was not afraid of anything, even when she was playing the world’s best player. No emotion could change her game or her face.” She proved it in the 2018 US Open final: she even confessed in the post-match presser: “When I entered the court, I was no longer Serena’s fan, I was a tennis player against another tennis player. But when we hugged and shook hands, I was a little girl again.” Léonard François has not succeeded in reproducing the Williams destiny – Mari has never ranked higher than world No280, and it was in 2018 – but he can brag about building 24-year-old Naomi Osaka, who already totals four Grand Slam titles. She even became the richest female athlete of all time with her 37.4 million dollars earnt in 2019 and had the honour of lighting the Olympic cauldron as the final torchbearer – the first tennis player to do so – in Tokyo. It has proven Léonard François right, as even Serena Williams never achieved any of these things.

She uses her voice, too

Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams are alike, and not only tennis-wise. Off-court, just like Serena, she also makes the most of her status to communicate on issues she cares about, like the Black Lives Matter movement. During the lockdown, Naomi Osaka saw George Floyd’s death on TV and flew to Minneapolis to join the protests; she also wrote an essay for Esquire to “speak up about systemic racism and police brutality” and directly involve tennis fans. First, she prompted the WTA to postpone the Cincinnati Open semi-final in reaction to the shooting of Jacob Blaker; she said: “As a Black woman, I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention than watching me play tennis.” Then, before every round of the 2020 US Open – which she won by beating Victoria Azarenka in the final – she entered the court wearing a black mask printed with the name of a person killed by the police. Long gone is the shy version of Naomi Osaka, who was looking for words, was stressed and gave “the worst speech ever” when she won the 2018 Indian Wells Masters.

The fight against racism is very important for Naomi Osaka, who has been the target of racial abuse all her life, even inside her own family, as her maternal grandparents, whom she only met when she was 11, denied their daughter Tamaki Osaka because of her relationship with Léonard François, a Black Haitian student. In Japan, ‘humourists’ joked about her “needing bleach for her too dark skin” while her sponsor Nissin released a promotional cartoon spot depicting her with a lighter skin. Even Nao Hibino, her Fed Cup teammate, described her as “physically different” in the New York Times magazine, adding that she was “not like Kei Nishikori, who is a purely Japanese player.” Despite the obvious racism of the Japanese culture, she has decided to play for Japan – a country with one of the lowest ethnic diversities in the world – and act as a role model and an example for Black Japanese youngsters.

“The truth is I have suffered long bouts of depression”

Naomi Osaka certainly is a complex person. In surface, she seems so shy, with her soft and slow voice; but she shows all her fighting spirit and lust for victory when she plays, as well as her commitment and desire to fight for things she cares about off-court. Though she looks quite self-confident when it comes to these two aspects, it happens to be quite the contrary, as she confessed after she withdrew from last year’s French Open; At first, she even refused to attend press conferences to preserve her mental health. “I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media,” she wrote in a long Instagram message to explain why she withdrew from the French Open. “Anyone that knows me knows that I’m introverted, and anyone that had seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety. The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.” Funnily enough, there again, Naomi Osaka is like Serena Williams, who suffered depression in 2018 too, and who, naturally, supported her padawan. “I feel like I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it’s like. We have different personalities, and everyone handles things differently. You just have to let her handle it the way she wants to, in the best way she thinks she can.” Naomi Osaka apparently wanted a rest; she withdrew from Wimbledon and stopped her season after the US Open to enjoy a break from tennis and travel to Greece, her friend Stéfanos Tsitsipás’ home country. Will she be back in force in 2022? Probably, especially as she still has 19 Grand Slam tournaments to win to level Serena Williams’ total.