Australian Open 2021 - Naomi Osaka's stock is soaring, but can she dominate women's tennis?
Naomi Osaka has added to her portfolio with several new sponsorship deals this year and heads into the Australian Open as one of the favourites to win the tournament. But can the three-time Grand Slam champion dominate women's tennis? The Australian Open in Melbourne starts live on Eurosport on February 8.
There might not have been much tennis played in January, but that didn’t stop Naomi Osaka from having a very productive start to the year.
A seven-figure deal for a Louis Vitton endorsement. The new brand ambassador for TAG Heuer. A sponsorship with human resources firm Workday that will see her wear the firm’s logo on her outfit. And a part ownership in women’s football team North Carolina Courage.
Osaka’s portfolio is increasing and her stock is rising, fast.
“There's so many interesting new people. I think I'm one of the new people,” she said this week ahead of the Gippsland Trophy.
“As long as Serena's here, I think she's the face of women's tennis.”
That may be true for now, but Osaka is primed to take over.
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On the court she is showing signs that her game is evolving and improving. She cut a glum figure after a surprise defeat to Coco Gauff in the third round of the Australian Open last year, calling the loss "a wake-up call."
When the tour returned in the summer she looked revitalised and made the final of the Western & Southern Open - which she withdrew from due to injury - before winning the US Open. Although she has admitted to being rusty at the start of this year, having not played competitively since September, she has won both her matches at the Gippsland Trophy to extend her winning run to 13 matches.
"There were a lot of things I was struggling with, and I feel like during quarantine I really had to dig deep in myself and try to figure it out for myself. I feel like there's a lot of people that had to go through that, and I'm just a person that you happen to ask questions to a lot.
"I think the me from last year is very different from the me this year. There's a lot of things I think I learned last year, and even a lot of things that I do differently with my new team."
Among her team is experienced coach Wim Fissette, who has previously coached Victoria Azarenka, Kim Clijsters, Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber. The pair have been working together since December 2019, when Fissette said the job was the “best in women’s tennis”.
It’s hard to argue that isn’t still the case, particularly as Fissette believes Osaka is motivated by what she does off the court, rather than distracted.
Speaking at the US Open, when Osaka wore different masks to remember black victims of alleged police or racist violence, Fissette said: "It’s definitely helping her and giving her even more energy. She always has the motivation…But this is like an extra motivation.
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"It’s very important to have big personalities like Naomi to make a change, hopefully, one day. I think it’s a great thing that she does. For sure, with wearing the masks, she wants to be a role model, but she also knows that it has to go together with the role model on court. It’s a good combination. Role model off court, great attitude on court. So far, it’s working really well. I’m very proud of her."
Still only 23, Osaka has proved she can deliver on the biggest stages, with three of her six titles coming at Grand Slams. But can she dominate the sport?
This looks to be a big year for her as she aims to make amends for her early loss at the Australian Open last season and then targets the Olympics in her home country of Japan, before trying to defend her title at the US Open. There’s also the challenge of showing improvements at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, neither of which she is yet to make it past the third round.
Former world No 1 Lindsey Davenport has high hopes for Osaka over the next few years.
"I think Osaka is going to be kind of the dominant force in women's tennis in the next five to seven years if she continues to play that long," she told Tennis Now.
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"I assume she will. I think her team, everybody around her, has a pretty good handle on what is the amount she needs to play. We only want her to play if she is ready to go and she's happy. I think that they have done a very good job of letting her blossom as a young, one of the most famous now females in the world.”
Osaka herself sounds well-prepared and in a good place ahead of the Australian Open.
"For me, it's almost like a privilege to be able to be here right now because there's so many things that are going on. Yeah, I would say that I'm more experienced. Maybe a year gave me more experience."
With extra experience and an improving game, Osaka should be difficult to stop in Melbourne.