O is for Naomi (O)saka, the young and upcoming tennis maestro from Japan – #BlogchatterAtoZ #AtoZChallenge 2019
Image Courtesy: Wikipedia.org
Most of the sportspersons I have been writing about till now have been established personalities in their respective fields of endeavour. Some of them belong to a bygone era and many of my readers have not even heard about these people. The letter ‘O’ presented a bit of a challenge until I hit upon a person whose name had made the rounds quite recently as the tennis player who ended the reign of the all-conquering Serena Williams in the women’s tennis circuit. This is none other than the young Naomi Osaka from Japan who beat Serena Williams in the US Open in 2018 to become the first Japanese player to win a grand slam title.
Naomi Osaka was born on 16, October 1997 in Chuo-ku, Osaka in Japan to Tamaki Osaka and Leonard Francois. Her father is from Haiti and her mother is from Hokkaido, Japan. Her older sister Mari is also a professional tennis player. At the age of three, Osaka and her family moved from Japan to Long Island, New York. Though Osaka’s father had never played tennis himself, he was keen to make his daughters Mari and Osaka tennis players when he watched the exploits of the Williams sisters in the world of tennis.
He tried to emulate Richard Williams the father of Serena and Venus in order to train his daughters Osaka and Mari in tennis. This is what François had to say about his training plan for his daughters which he had borrowed from Richard Williams, ‘The blueprint was already there. I just had to follow it’. Once the family settled properly in the United States he began coaching Naomi and Mari.
Tamaki and Leonard decided that though they lived in the US their two daughters would represent Japan in tennis. This is what they have to say about this decision,
‘We made the decision that Naomi would represent Japan at an early age. She was born in Osaka and was brought up in a household of Japanese and Haitian culture. Quite simply, Naomi and her sister Mari have always felt Japanese so that was our only rationale. It was never a financially motivated decision nor were we ever swayed either way by any national federation.’
Osaka played in only a few junior tournaments at any age level. Instead, she played in the ITF Women’s Circuit. She played her first qualifying match on October 2011 on her 14th birthday. She made her professional debut in doubles on March 2011 with her sister Mari. At the ITF $10K event in Amelia Island, she lost to her sister Mari in the semifinals. In four attempts at the ITF level, Osaka finished as runner-up on all four occasions. She reached the finals of the $25K level twice, one of which was held on June 2013 in El Paso, Texas. The other was held on March 2014 in Irapuato, Mexico and on the way to the finals she defeated her sister.
Shortly before her 16th birthday, on September 2013, Osaka turned professional. The following year she qualified for the first WTA main draw at the 2014 Stanford Classic. She upset world No. 19 Samantha Stosur when, after saving a match point in the second set tiebreak, she came back from a 5–3 deficit to win the match. Osaka also won a match as a wild card entrant at the Japan Women’s Open. All these wins helped her move into the top 250 of the WTA rankings before the season ended.
Though she did not win another WTA main draw singles match she continued to climb up the rankings. She reached the ITF final at the $75K Kangaroo Cup in Japan. She followed this with another ITF final in the $50K Surbiton Trophy played in the United Kingdom. Because of these results, Osaka was ranked high enough to enter the qualifying rounds of the two Grand Slam singles events, Wimbledon and the US Open. But she was unable to qualify for either of them. After reaching a semifinal of a 75K event in Japan, she finished the year ranked 144.
In 2016 Osaka qualified for the French Open and made it to the third round. Shortly after the French Open she suffered an injury and did not play in Wimbledon. But she returned in August and played the US Open and reached the third round. In the process, she defeated world no 30 CoCo Vanderweghe but finally lost to world no 9 Madison Keys. Though Osaka had improved steadily throughout 2016 her performances were not so good in 2017.
In 2017 her best result was at the Canadian Open when she reached the round of sixteen as a qualifier. Along the way, she upset world no 16 Anastasija Sevastova before retiring hurt against world no 1 Karolina Pilskova. In the Wimbledon and US Open that year, she made it to the third round. She lost to Venus Williams in Wimbledon. Following her dismal performance and lack of improvement that year, she hired Sascha Bajin to be her coach.
At the Australian Open in 2018, she entered the fourth round eventually losing to world no 1 Simona Halep. She was now in the top 50. At the Indian Wells that year she won very convincingly, dropping only one set in the entire tournament. She defeated both Simona Halep and Karolina Pliskova who were in the top five. She followed the Indian Wells by reaching the first round of the French Open and Wimbledon.
She then won her second major title of the year which was the US Open. She beat Madison Keys in the semi-finals and avenged her 2016 US open defeat and advanced to the finals where she was pitted against Serena Williams. The match proved to be extremely controversial. This match was marred by an on-court dispute between Serena Williams and the umpire. Williams received a game penalty and Osaka was booed by the crowd not only during the match but also during the award ceremony.
Osaka later said about the incident that it was ‘a little bit bittersweet’ and ‘it wasn’t necessarily the happiest memory’. Nevertheless, Osaka won the finals and became the first Japanese Grandslam Singles Champion. Osaka then had a streak of wins and she reached the finals of the China Open. With this, she rose to a ranking of World No 4 matching the record of Kimiko Date and Kei Nishikori for the highest ranking ever held by a Japanese player in history. She finished the year as the WTA tour leader in prize money. She had earned almost $6.4 million.
In 2019, she made it to the finals of the Australian Open despite coming close to a defeat in the third round. In the final, she was pitted against Petra Kvitova. In that match, Kvitova saved three championship points before she broke Osaka’s serve in back to back games to win the second set. But nevertheless, Osaka won the third set and the championship. Osaka is the first woman to win consecutive Grand Slam singles titles since Serena Williams in 2015. She is also the first to follow a Grand Slam singles title with another one immediately since Jennifer Capriati in 2001.
She is the first Asian player to be ranked world No. 1. Despite this impressive record, she parted ways with her coach Sascha Bajin in 2019. Naomi Osaka has represented Japan in the Fed Cup and the Hopman Cup. Osaka is basically a baseline player. What characterises her game is the aggression and the raw power she has. She has a very powerful serve and a forehand. Her serves have been clocked at 125 miles per hour making her one of the fastest servers ever seen in WTA history. She has the ability to play long rallies which stand her in good stead. She has spoken about her improvement over the years as a tennis pro. Here is what she says,
‘I think my biggest improvement is mental. My game is more consistent, there are not so many unforced errors. I’m not sure how many I hit today, but sometimes last year I was hitting a lot!”
She says about her stint with Sascha Bajin as her coach,
‘Since I was working with him — and I tend to be a bit negative on myself — I feel like I’ve gotten a little bit more optimistic … I fight myself a lot, so he’s sort of been, like, the peacemaker.’
Osaka has a shy and reserved personality. This has become evident in public events at times. For example, she began her 2018 Indian Wells Open Victory speech with ‘Um, hello … I’m Naom … oh never mind’ and later said, ‘This is probably going to be the worst acceptance speech of all time’. She nearly forgot to thank her opponent Daria Kasatkina as well as one of her sponsors Yonex.
Osaka’s sporting equipment like rackets is supplied by the Japanese sporting equipment manufacturer Yonex. She plays with the Yonex Ezone 98 racket. Adidas sponsored her apparel till 2019 after which she switched over to Nike. She is represented by the IMG management company. She is also the brand ambassador for the Japanese automobile manufacturer Nissan and the Japanese electronics manufacturer Citizen Watch.
She also endorses several other Japanese companies like noodle maker Nissin foods, cosmetics producer Shiseido. the broadcasting station Wowow and the airline All Nippon Airways. I hope you enjoyed reading about this up and coming Japanese tennis player who has very quickly risen to world No 1 challenging the domination of Serena Williams. Tomorrow I will be back with another sporting personality. Till then adieu.
Tags – #BlogchatterAtoZ 2019 #AtoZChallenge 2019