“I think the amount of attention that I get is kind of ridiculous,” Naomi Osaka says in the recently-released Netflix mini-series about her life so far. “No one prepares you for that, you know? It’s really weird sometimes.”
With four Grand Slam titles won and a spell as world No 1, you’d think Osaka is probably getting used to the attention by now. But if there’s ever a time for even more ridiculousness it’s an Olympic Games in her home country.
The 24-year-old, who announced in 2019 that she would play for Japan, the country of her birth, rather than the USA, where she has spent most of her life, is one of the country’s biggest stars and one of the faces of the Games. She has also demonstrated over the last 12 months that she is - and intends to be - far, far more than just a tennis player.
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Along with winning two Grand Slam titles she has spoken out against social injustices in America, refused to play a semi-final match in protest against "continued genocide of black people'" by police, opened up about her mental health, released a Netflix mini-series about her life, had a Barbie doll modelled after her, won awards, appeared on a number of high-profile magazine covers, and taken on big-name personalities on social media. Osaka's status has soared, and her actions and words are resonating in Japan.
“When she took a stand against Black Lives Matter, it certainly had a strong impact here in that it started many conversations about race and discrimination,” Japan Times’ editor Joel Tansey tells Eurosport.
“I've heard from some officials in sport and tennis that her success has had a major impact on young girls in Japan, who see Naomi Osaka as a role model to emulate. Her presence is perhaps particularly powerful in a country like Japan where the gender gap is still gaping. I imagine that impact is also pronounced for biracial Japanese people who have fewer role models to look up to among the country's celebrities.”
Osaka’s connection with Japan is fascinating. She has been criticised for declining to speak Japanese in press conferences. There have been questions about her Japanese ethnicity and “how Japanese” she really is. In her documentary series she says it was “never even a secret” that she was going to play for Japan at the Olympics, but by making the decision she was criticised in America. “I don't choose America and suddenly people are like, ‘Your black card is revoked’. And it's like, ‘African American isn't the only black, you know?’”.
“Osaka's situation is certainly a bit unique,” says Tansey. “In that she isn't fluent in the language of the country she represents. I can't think of many other examples quite like hers among top athletes.
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“Still, she has had little trouble connecting with younger audiences, who are more likely to follow her on Twitter and Instagram, where any language barriers are easier to overcome. The public also tends to appreciate the little things she does that remind people that she is Japanese despite having grown up in the US. Her shyness, her tendency to bow her head toward her opponent and her affinity for Japanese food are just some of the things she does that make people feel closer to her.
“I think it's fair to say she's had a tougher time connecting with older Japanese, some of whom may not see her as Japanese because of her upbringing in America but also, unfortunately, because of her biracial background.”
When Osaka takes to the court at the Ariake Tennis Park for her Olympic debut it will be her first competitive match in almost two months.
The world No 2 hasn’t played since withdrawing from the French Open in the second round. She opted not to attend press conferences at the tournament to protect her mental health and then made the decision to withdraw as she needed some “time away from the court”. Osaka didn’t play at Wimbledon and has asked for more “privacy and empathy" when she returns to action.
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Returning on hard courts should make it easier for Osaka, considering she has enjoyed almost all of her success so far in her career on the surface. Her four Slam wins have been on hard courts as have her other three career titles – Osaka and Beijing in 2019 and Indian Wells in 2018. She has also proved that she doesn’t need match practice to be successful. From January 2020 to February 2021 she won two Grand Slam titles and played in only two other tournaments.
The occasion of a home Olympics still could be a challenging prospect for Osaka, who has described herself in the past as shy and the "most awkward" person in tennis. However, she seems prepared for it.
“I always have this pressure to maintain this sweet-pea image,” she says in her documentary series. “But now I don't care what anyone has to say.”
It will be fascinating to see what frame of mind Osaka is in when she returns. Will the lack of fans in the stands have any impact on her? And will she relish the occasion of playing in her home country?
“Certainly Naomi is one of the faces of the Japanese Olympic team,” says Tansey. “But Japan is a country that loves to celebrate its stars so it's a bit of a crowded field.
“If she gets on a roll and wins her first couple matches, I have little doubt it'll become a top story here, although Japan looks to be on track for a record gold medal haul so it's not like she'll have the spotlight to herself.”
However Osaka performs over the next week, it’s clear that Japan has a superstar for many years to come.
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