The Stunning Transformation Of Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka has undergone a stunning transformation. With her win at the 2021 Australian Open, she became the first female tennis athlete in 30 years to win her first four Grand Slam finals, a feat that Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Steffi Graf, and Martina Navratilova couldn’t muster, as Yahoo! Sport points out. In fact, Osaka defeated Serena in that open’s semi-final round. 

But when a reporter asked Osaka if she still thought Serena was the face of tennis, Osaka once again showed her unflagging respect for the woman whose career inspired her own. “This is going to sound really odd, but hopefully I play long enough to play a girl that said that I was once her favorite player or something,” the tennis champ said after the match. “For me, I think that’s the coolest thing that could ever happen to me… That’s how the sport moves forward.”

And now Osaka wants to pay it forward and inspire the next generation. From her transcontinental childhood spent training alongside her older sister to her ascent to tennis superstardom (with earnings to match), here is the evolution of Naomi Osaka.

Naomi Osaka was born to a Haitian father and a Japanese mother

Naomi Osaka was born on October 16, 1997, and she shares her surname with her birthplace: Osaka, Japan. Naomi’s father, Leonard Francois, was born in Haiti, and her mother, Tamaki Osaka, was born and raised in Hokkaido, Japan, according to a 2018 profile of the athlete in The New York Times.

Francois was a college student in New York when he traveled to Sapporo around 1990, at a time when Tamaki was attending high school in the same city, Hokkaido’s capital. The duo secretly dated for several years before Tamaki, in her twenties by that point, disclosed the relationship to her father, who was ready to talk to her about matchmaking ahead of an arranged marriage. Facing outrage from her father, Tamaki and Francois moved to Osaka, where they had their daughters, Naomi and Mari Osaka.

Stuart Duguid, Naomi’s agent at I.M.G., reflected on his client’s biracial status in 2018, telling the Times he hopes Naomi has “changed cultural perceptions of multiracial people in Japan,” as well as “opened the door for other people to follow, not just in tennis or sports, but for all of society.”

Naomi Osaka's father started training her when she was 3

Naomi Osaka wasn’t even 2 years old when her father, Leonard Francois, tuned into the 1999 French Open on a night that would change the toddler’s destiny. It was that night that Francois watched Venus and Serena Williams, 17 and 18 years old at the time, defeat Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova. As he explained to The New York Times, Francois was a tennis neophyte, but he took inspiration from Richard Williams, Venus and Serena’s father, who coached the sisters even without tennis experience of his own. “The blueprint was already there,” Francois said. “I just had to follow it.”

When Naomi was 3, the family left for the United States and moved in with Francois’ parents on Long Island. Francois started training his girls on the local tennis courts — learning about the sport from books and DVDs — and Mari and Naomi hit hundreds or even thousands of balls each day as they practiced.

The family spent five years on Long Island, with young Naomi hearing Japanese from her mother and Haitian Creole from her grandparents. “I grew up surrounded by both Haitian and Japanese culture,” Naomi recalled.

Growing up, Naomi Osaka trained against her sister

As Leonard Francois trained daughters Mari and Naomi Osaka in tennis, Naomi was focused less on hitting the ball and more on defeating her older sister. But for 12 years, Mari reigned victorious, often defeating the future No. 1 tennis champ 6–0, as The New York Times reported. “For her, it wasn’t a competition, but for me, every day was a competition,” Naomi explained. “Every day I’d say, ‘I’m going to beat you tomorrow.'”

In an open “love letter” to her younger sister published in Glamour in 2020, Mari reflected on the time that Naomi finally started beating her, writing, “I remember you made this face — the most annoying face in the world — that made me want to punch you. But it’s cool. I’ll get you again.”

In 2006, Francois and Tamaki Osaka moved the family to the city of Pembroke Pines, Florida, the same city where Naomi’s future rival Sofia Kenin grew up, per Yahoo! Sports. Naomi and Mari would train on public courts during the day and be home-schooled at night.

Naomi Osaka's father decided his daughters would represent Japan, not the U.S.

Following in Venus and Serena Williams’ footsteps, Mari and Naomi Osaka started vying off against older players on pro satellite tours, but they didn’t get much attention from the United States Tennis Association, according to The New York Times. So, their father, Leonard Francois, decided that Mari and Naomi would play for Japan instead of the United States, starting from when they were 13.

Naomi didn’t seem as gifted as Mari at first, but now, Naomi’s tennis career has taken off as Mari has struggled to play through a shoulder injury. Mari still competes on the USTA pro circuit, however, and she’s currently ranked No. 335 in the world, according to WTA. “I’m not with you as much as I would like, and I don’t always get to be there for these big wins,” Mari wrote in her Glamour letter to her younger sister. “I know better than to give you tennis advice, but it makes me happy that you still call me before big matches. You tell me you’re nervous. I tell you to picture everyone naked.”

Naomi Osaka defeated a former U.S. Open champion at just 16

Naomi Osaka scored her first tour-level win — and made international news — at age 16 when she beat former U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur in the 2014 Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, California. Osaka clinched the victory with a 120 mph serve, as Sports Illustrated reported at the time. “It’s probably the second best win of my life, probably,” the then-teenager told reporters after the match. “First being when I first beat my sister. I was like, ‘Yeah, in your face.'”

Japanese media celebrated the news of Osaka’s victory, according to The New York Times, and her maternal grandfather — who’d previously criticized Osaka’s tennis training and home-schooling — took notice. Over the years, he has become supportive of her athletic ambitions, even sending her a small silk pouch for good luck, a gift Osaka then hung from her tennis bag.

Naomi Osaka won her first WTA title in 2018

At 20 years old, Naomi Osaka won her first Women’s Tennis Association title at the 2018 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California; she defeated former No. 1 players Maria Sharapova and Karolina Pliskova and the then-current No. 1, Simona Halep, before trouncing Daria Kasatkina in the final.

Osaka told reporters that she was very nervous at the match. “But my plan was to, like, fake that I’m very calm,” she revealed, according to The New York Times. (Her superstitiousness didn’t help her nerves: she said that she ate sourdough toast before the match instead of her customary wheat toast, explaining that the switch-up made her a little “freaked out,” as the Desert Sun reported.)

At the time, Osaka had just started working with coach Sascha Bajin, who had previously worked with Serena Williams. Former tennis champ Chris Evert credited Bajin for changing Osaka’s game, saying that Osaka’s movement was “noticeably different” at Indian Wells. The victory also increased Osaka’s career winnings by nearly double. According to the Desert Sun, she took home $1,340,860 after the win, compared to the $1,483,053 that she had won to date.

Naomi Osaka played an emotional U.S. Open match against Serena Williams in 2018

At the 2018 U.S. Open, Naomi Osaka defeated Madison Keys in the semifinals, telling ESPN after the match that she was thinking about the prospect of playing Serena Williams the whole time. But the finals match between Osaka and Williams turned out to be an emotional game for both athletes.

During the match, the chair umpire issued Williams a point penalty after she smashed a racket against the court, and later awarded Osaka a game after Williams called him a thief. The incident sparked a worldwide debate about sexism in tennis, since male players have gotten away with worse behavior.

Osaka ultimately won the match — becoming the first Japanese player ever to win a Grand Slam title, per The Undefeated – but sobbed as she faced a booing crowd. Later, she cried again on the podium as she accepted her trophy. Williams tried defending Osaka, saying, “I just want to tell you guys she played well. This is her first Grand Slam… Let’s not boo anymore.” When it was her turn at the mic, Osaka apologized to the audience, saying, “I’m sorry it had to end like this.”

Naomi Osaka is the first Asian tennis player to become No. 1 in the world

In 2019, Naomi Osaka scored her second Grand Slam championship when she defeated Petra Kvitová at the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia. In doing so, the then-21-year-old Osaka became the first Asian tennis athlete — male or female — to be ranked No. 1 in the world, as BuzzFeed News reported at the time.

Retired Chinese tennis player Li Na, the first Asian player to win a Grand Slam, was on hand to present the trophy to Osaka. “Thank you, everyone,” Osaka said after her win. “I am really honored to have played in this final.” She also commended Kvitová, saying she always wanted to play the Czech athlete.

Two weeks later, Osaka parted ways with coach Sascha Bajin. She told reporters that they hadn’t fallen out over money, refuting the gossip at the time. “My reason is I wouldn’t put success over my happiness — that’s my main thing,” she revealed, per Reuters. “I’m not going to sacrifice that just to keep a person around.” She later hired Jermaine Jenkins as a coach, followed by Wim Fisette, with her father filling in the gap between, per WTA.

Naomi Osaka is in a relationship with rapper Cordae

Naomi Osaka’s boyfriend is Cordae Amari Dunston, better known as the rapper and two-time Grammy nominee Cordae. A March 2021 GQ cover story revealed that the couple met two years prior and went on their first date at a Los Angeles Clippers game. At first, Cordae didn’t even know she was a tennis star, as he explained, and he attended his first tennis match when he watched her compete in the 2019 U.S. Open.

In the interview, Cordae said he introduced Osaka to the work of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Gil Scott-Heron, but observed that she has a “good ear” for music. In facts, he even plays his works-in-progress for her. “But he had to warm up to me,” Osaka added. “And I had to do a lot of pleases. ‘Please, sir, can I just please listen to your song?’… He’s a perfectionist, and I think that’s sort of what I am, too. So maybe that’s why we get along.”

Osaka also said that Cordae helped her win the 2020 U.S. Open title when he flew to New York to be with her during her pre-tournament quarantine.

Naomi Osaka used to be shy, but now she's done with that "waste" of time

Many articles about Naomi Osaka’s rise to fame have described her as shy and quiet. But in a 2020 tweet, the athlete vowed to change that aspect of her personality. “I’m done being shy. It’s really a waste of my time,” she shared. “I could’ve shared so many ideas by now. I could’ve had convos with so many different people. All the things I could’ve learned, but no, I’m over here actually putting my own limiter on myself.”

A day later, Osaka told CNN that those missed opportunities are some of the regrets she thinks about before going to sleep. She also revealed that there have been instances when things went in a way she “didn’t really enjoy” because she held her tongue.

Additionally, Osaka recounted a time when she ran into Jay-Z and Beyoncé during a 2019 vacation, but got so nervous that she only gave Jay-Z one-word replies, making the conversation come to a “screeching halt.” And she won’t make that mistake again. “I want to take the chance to tell people I appreciate them while I can,” she added.

Naomi Osaka uses her platform to expose police brutality

In 2020, days after George Floyd was killed by police, Naomi Osaka and boyfriend Cordae flew to Minneapolis to join the peaceful protests in the city; she wrote in a subsequent Esquire essay that it “felt right” to be on the ground there. She also withdrew from a scheduled match at the 2020 Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of nationwide athlete protests against racial injustice and police brutality, per WTA. “Before I am an athlete, I am a Black woman,” she wrote on Twitter.

At her matches during the U.S. Open later that year, Osaka wore face masks bearing the names Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tamir Rice, and other individuals whose deaths have exposed the pervasive racism in America. And in video messages that were broadcast on ESPN, Ahmaud Arbery’s father and Trayvon Martin’s mother thanked Osaka her activism and for honoring their children on her masks. “I feel like I’m a vessel at this point in order to spread awareness, and it’s not going to dull the pain, but hopefully, I can help with anything that they need,” Osaka said after watching the messages.

Naomi Osaka became the highest-paid female athlete ever in 2020

At just 22 years old, Naomi Osaka became the highest-paid female athlete ever after earning $37.4 million from prize money and endorsements across a 12-month span, as Forbes reported in 2020. The ranking ended Serena Williams’ four-year streak as the highest-paid female athlete, though Williams did join Osaka as the only two women on Forbes‘ list of that year’s 100 highest-paid athletes.

The magazine listed some of Osaka’s lucrative endorsement deals — including agreements with Nike, Procter & Gamble, Nissan Motor, Shiseido, Yonex, Nippon Airways, MasterCard, and Nissin Foods — and noted that she’s a hot commodity ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics (which were postponed to 2021). “To those outside the tennis world, Osaka is a relatively fresh face with a great backstory,” David Carter, a sports business professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business, told Forbes. “Combine that with being youthful and bicultural, two attributes that help her resonate with younger, global audiences, and the result is the emergence of a global sports marketing icon.”

In 2021, Osaka announced another business move on Instagram, telling fans that she’d become Louis Vuitton’s newest brand ambassador.

Naomi Osaka inspired a manga character in a "major leap forward" in representation

In 2020, Naomi Osaka shared the news that she’d inspired a manga character in the manga magazine Nakayoshi, a character that would appear in a series called Unrivaled Naomi Tenkaichi. Better yet, her sister, Mari Osaka, was involved in the creation of the character, as BBC News reported. “Growing up reading manga [and] watching anime was something that bonded me and my sister immensely, so this is really exciting for both of us,” Naomi tweeted at the time.

Roland Kelts, a visiting professor of culture, media, and society at Tokyo’s Waseda University, told BBC News that a half-Haitian, half-Japanese manga character — and one based on an admired and accomplished athlete — marked “a major leap forward in manga cultural awareness and representation,” especially because the biracial manga characters who do make it to the printed page are typically half-white and half-Japanese.

Naomi Osaka owns a North Carolina soccer team

After making her mark in the tennis world, Naomi Osaka turned her attention to soccer in 2021; she invested in the North Carolina Courage, the back-to-back champions of the National Women’s Soccer League.

In a press release, Osaka said her investment wasn’t just about being a team owner, as it was “an investment in amazing women who are role models and leaders in their fields and inspirations to all young female athletes.” She also praised the team for everything it’s done for diversity and equality.

And the Courage praised Osaka right back, with general manager Curt Johnson saying the tennis champ’s values “sync so well” with those of the club, which has won two NWSL Championships, three NWSL Shields, and the Women’s International Champions Cup over a four-year span. Founder Stephen Malik, meanwhile, said Osaka “brings an invaluable viewpoint on topics beyond sports,” per Reuters.

Naomi Osaka learned about resilience from friend Kobe Bryant

Naomi Osaka befriended the late Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant after her agent introduced them to one another. She told Vogue in 2020 that Bryant taught her that “even though it’s tough in the moment, if you keep going, you’ll get the result — or you might not get the result, but you’ll get an opportunity to get the result.”

Osaka also paid tribute to Bryant — who tragically died in a 2020 helicopter accident — in a GQ interview that same year. “He was someone that, no matter how busy he was, for some reason he always picked up the phone when I called him,” she revealed.

After beating Serena Williams in the Australian Open semifinals in 2021, Osaka donned a Los Angeles Lakers sweater, telling reporters that she wore it because she “needed some extra strength” that day, according to ESPN.

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