Naomi Osaka: Olympic poster girl shows signs of her sporting greatness even in rusty return

This is what Naomi Osaka does with her life: she plays tennis better than any woman in the world. That has its rewards, 20 million of them and counting in prize money alone, but it also has its costs
Naomi Osaka: Olympic poster girl shows signs of her sporting greatness even in rusty return

Naomi Osaka serves to China's Zheng Saisai. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

There’s a quiet, peaceful tranquility as the ball hangs in the air, suspended in time, but right when reaches its apex, Naomi Osaka loads up her right arm and prepares to choose violence.

The silence at the Ariake Tennis Centre in Tokyo is broken by an explosive pop, its noise accentuated by the sound of Osaka’s feet slapping back to earth from her service leap. The ball rockets across to the other side of the net, flashing at China’s Saisai Zheng faster than she’s able to react: 15-love.

Osaka pumps her fist, lets out what looks like a significant amount of frustration – at what, exactly, only she knows.

“Come onnnnnn,” shouts the best female tennis player of recent years, a 23-year-old whose face was beamed across the world on Friday night, a young woman with the weight of a nation on her shoulders, whose gifts and graft have ensured a level of fame and fortune so hefty that she is now pulled this way and that, all at an age when most are still trying to figure out what to do with their lives.

This is what Naomi Osaka does with her life: she plays tennis better than any woman in the world. That has its rewards, 20 million of them and counting in prize money alone, but it also has its costs.

There are the media duties, the merry-go-round of the WTA Tour, Grand Slams. There are her fans, the 2.7 million followers on Instagram, managers, sponsors – the well-oiled corporate machine that generates tens of millions in wealth each year but which create a level of global fame that means the freedom to walk down the street has long been relinquished.

Then there are the two countries to which she belongs: Japan, where she was born, and the US, where she was raised. At the age of 21, Osaka had to pick between them, Japan’s nationality act demanding dual citizens must make a “declaration of choice” and forfeit one of their citizenships by the age of 22. Osaka stuck with Japan, which drew criticism from many quarters in the US, the country that made her the tennis player she is – from her childhood in New York to the tennis haven she grew up in in Florida, where she moved at the age of eight.

And yet the criticism also emerges from Japan, put out by those who feel Osaka does little to represent the culture of her mother, who’s from Hokkaido, and those who feel a girl who left their shores at the age of three and only speaks their language in private doesn’t truly represent their nation. (Part of that is also likely due to being mixed race, with a Haitian father.) 

Naomi Osaka carries the Olympic Torch during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
Naomi Osaka carries the Olympic Torch during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games

But on Friday night in Tokyo, Osaka represented Japan in admirable fashion, and she did it again on Sunday afternoon, this time where she is most at home: on court. She walked out beaming with pride in her Japanese kit, her dyed braids perfectly matching its deep red, her hair held in place with red and white scrunchies.

This was Osaka’s first tennis match in almost two months, ever since she withdrew from the French Open, citing mental health difficulties, after a media storm arose following her decision not to do post-match press conferences.

The question that hung in the air today: Could she handle the pressure of a home Olympics, one which had made her the poster girl? Following her match Osaka revealed she had first been contacted about lighting the Olympic flame back in March, and her decision to do so had certainly added a level of attention and expectation that could prove nauseating, particularly given the summer Osaka just had.

As she walked no one was watching and everyone was watching – the stands bereft of the fans that could and would have turned this splendid stadium into a raucous arena, the Japanese public forced to watch on TV an Olympics they have sacrificed so much to host, the new normal dragging on longer than most of us ever imagined.

But maybe that was a good thing for Osaka, allowing her to find her tennis feet in a setting that felt a lot like practice. Her coach, the Belgian Wim Fisette, sat in the corner of the stadium among other Japanese team managers, offering his encouragement following every point she executed well, rallying her after those she bungled.

If the true sign of sporting greatness is the ability to win when not playing your best, then what Osaka did was something more. This was several tiers below her best and she won with consummate ease. In the first set, she sprayed straightforward balls wide, dumped them into the net, and still the score read 5-0 to Osaka after about a half-hour. She took the first set 6-1, but the rustiness was clearly prevalent in the second. Osaka looked tired at times, lethargic, which would be fully justified given the afternoon sun beating down from above and temperatures moving towards the mid-30s.

Watching her play, it can be difficult to isolate the part of her game that makes her great.

She doesn’t hit truly thunderous serves like Serena Williams or eye-watering forehands like Petra Kvitova. Her points are won with a combination of speed and precision, moving her opponent a few times until she has her right where she wants. Then, and only then, will she unleash the forehand dagger that loads so much topspin on the ball that it skips up off the surface upon landing and is a nightmare to deal with – that’s if her opponent retrieves it at all.

The soundtrack to her game is not the screeching din that the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova subject their opponents (and the rest of us) to; Osaka barely makes a noise, even when loading that forehand with weapons-grade lethality.

She is also unfailingly polite on court.

Ball boys and girls are greeted with smiles when she takes the ball and apologies when she scuffs a wayward bounce in their direction, and at least five times during Sunday’s match, Osaka used her hand and her racket to applaud her opponent’s winners, saying “good shot” loud enough that Zheng could hear. All well and good to do that when coasting to victory, but Osaka also did it when struggling, early in the second set, on the cusp of being broken and clearly frustrated with her form.

And despite taking a facile win the evidence was that she’s still very much off her best.

Osaka threw several confused, quizzical looks to the sky, puffing her cheeks, while one wayward shot led to her throwing a daggered look into space and quietly muttering, “hit the f***ing ball, get the ball” to herself.

Those moments of despair were always met with the same recovery routine. Osaka allowed herself a few seconds to vent, then she collected her focus, jig-jogging on the spot, then hit one practice backhand, one practice forehand. After that she crooked her left elbow at 90 degrees, clenched her left fist, and made the same rallying gesture Barack Obama used to during his speeches.

She thumped her left thigh twice, then leaned forward, staring down the court and swaying, poised and ready for the attack of her opponent’s serve. Compartmentalisation is a key skill in tennis, and whatever issues Osaka is still dealing with off the court, she appears able to box them off once she gets on it.

Only when match point was put away did she finally break into what looked a genuine, heartfelt smile, Osaka bowing to her competitor as she came to the net before bowing to the umpire.

Outside, hundreds of journalists waited in the mixed zone, the very folk Osaka had ignited a furore with earlier this year that soon mushroomed into a media storm. Would she stop and talk? Would she walk on by?

Osaka emerged and stood before them, answering a handful of questions at each stop along the way. The questions were kind, cautious, curious, as the majority had been throughout her career.

She was asked how it felt to be back under the spotlight given all that came before. It was clear she didn’t want to delve too deep into the past.

“I feel more than anything I’m focused on playing tennis,” she said. “Playing in the Olympics has been a dream of mine since I was a kid. The break I took has been needed. I definitely feel a bit refreshed…and happy again.” 

She looked it, too, at least when the match was over if not so much while she was playing it.

If her gold-medal dream is to come true in Tokyo, then Osaka will need to be better in the days to come. But Sunday afternoon wasn’t the time to jump too far ahead. Among both her detractors and supporters, the sentiments were the same. It was good to see her smiling, it was good to have her back.

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