This story appears in the November/December 2018 issue of Long Island Tennis Magazine. Click Here to view and the digital edition.
Standing at the makeshift podium inside Arthur Ashe Stadium as the 2018 U.S. Open trophy ceremony was set to begin, Naomi Osaka pulled her black Adidas visor over her face as tears began to stream down.
The 20-year-old had just reached the peak of professional tennis, winning the U.S. Open for her maiden Grand Slam, toppling her idol Serena Williams, 6-2, 6-4, in the finals.
“I know that everyone was cheering for Serena and I’m sorry it had to end like this,” said Osaka, equal parts overwhelmed by the moment and dejected about beating one of her heroes. “I just want to say thank you for watching the match.”
She would further explain her sadness and uneasiness in her press conference.
“Because I know that she really wanted to have the 24th Grand Slam. Everyone knows this. It’s on commercials … it’s everywhere,” said Osaka. “But when I step onto the court, I feel like a different person. I’m not a Serena fan. I’m just a tennis player playing another tennis player. But when I hugged her at the net, I felt like a little kid again.”
It was not the most pleasant way to end what should have been the happiest moment of the young woman’s life. Serena was given a game penalty by chair umpire Carlos Ramos at 4-3 in the second set after receiving her third code violation, which led to the 23-time Grand Slam champion having a meltdown on court.
The pro-Serena New York crowd was complicit in creating the negative atmosphere that followed, reigning down boos even as the trophy ceremony began.
But this isn’t a story about Serena, the game penalty, underlying double-standards or even sexism issues that reside in tennis.
It’s about Naomi Osaka, and more specifically, the birth of a star on one of the grandest of stages. While everyone’s background is unique, the shy yet charming Osaka’s upbringing is especially her own.
Born in Japan to a Haitian father and Japanese mother, the family, which also included older sister Mari, moved to Long Island when Osaka was just three-years-old to be closer to her father’s Haitian relatives.
The family lived in Elmont for about six years, and Osaka has memories of attending the U.S. Open and even playing at a local Sportime facility.
“I played at Sportime … I don’t remember the location, but I played in a few of their locations,” Osaka recalled during a U.S. Open press conference. “I would play on public courts, but don’t really remember their specific location. But, I grew up playing in New York for a bit. I don’t really remember playing sets with anyone else except my sister.”
To further her tennis game, Osaka moved to Boca Raton, Fla. to train after her time on Long Island. But her tennis career has now come full circle with her triumph at Flushing Meadows, a place where she used to come watch the professionals play, dreaming one day she would be on that stage.
“It definitely means a lot to me, and I always thought if I were to win a Grand Slam, the first one I’d want to win is the U.S. Open,” Osaka said. “Because I have grown up here and then my grandparents can come and watch … I think it would be really cool.”
Still just 20-years-old, Osaka has already experience both the ups and downs of being a professional, the sort of on-court adversity that paved way to her two-week domination at the 2018 U.S. Open.
The match that keeps coming to mind is the third-round clash between her and Madison Keys at the U.S. Open in 2016. Osaka was still a teenager at the time and had Keys on the ropes with a spot in the Round of 16 in her grasp. Osaka opened up a 5-1 lead in the slugfest’s deciding third set, only to collapse and see Keys rally back to win the match in a third-set tie-break.
“I feel like I learned a lot in the match I played here two years ago, which people keep bringing up,” said Osaka. “I’m grateful that I had that experience.”
Those types of losses can either make or break a player, and the experience clearly helped foster Osaka’s growth. Her focus, which fell apart in that defeat to Keys, was unrelenting at the 2018 U.S. Open, the aspect of her run she says she is proud of.
“I’ve played really great players like Madison Keys, Aryna Sabalenka, and even players in the early rounds. It was really hard for me to remain focused every match, but I think, somehow, I managed to pull through,” Osaka said after her semifinal win over Keys. “I’m really proud of myself for focusing.”
That focus was on display once again in the finals, persevering through her near 75-minute match with a 23-time Grand Slam champion amid controversy.
“She played an amazing match. She deserved credit, she deserved to win. At the end of the day, that’s what it was,” said Serena. “She made a lot of shots. She was so focused. Whenever I had a break point, she came up with some great serves. Honestly, there’s a lot I can learn from her from this match.”
Her U.S. Open success was a product of some soul-searching she did throughout the 2018 season. In Indian Wells, Calif., Osaka bulldozed through the competition to win the BNP Paribas Open, a major breakthrough win for her, defeating Daria Kasatkina, 6-3, 6-2 in the finals. The win naturally increased expectations for Osaka, something she admitted that she struggled with.
“I haven’t been feeling the ball right and it’s thrown me off a lot to the point where I started getting really frustrated and depressed during my practices,” Osaka said in a post on social media. “I had a lot of pressure entering the hard court swing because I felt a lot of expectation on me from Indian Wells and I didn’t feel like the underdog anymore (which is a totally new feeling for me).”
Having already secured a title at one of the WTA Tour’s major tournaments and dealing with the pressures that come along with such a win, Osaka was more prepared to handle expectations during the U.S. Open. And the more she dominated her competition in Flushing, the better she continued to play.
She is now a global superstar and has been treated as one in the weeks and months following 2018’s final Grand Slam. She earned $3.8 million in prize money for her win, a record, and has only further padded her bank account with a number of different endorsements.
Entering the U.S. Open, Osaka already had deals with Yonex, Adidas, Nissin Foods, Citizen Watch and Wowow, and following her win, automaker Nissan announced a three-year agreement with Osaka with a huge ceremony.
“Winning the U.S. Open in such a high-profile final has definitely accelerated the ascent of Naomi’s profile,” said Stuart Duguid, Osaka’s Manager. “However, her game and personality were always there, so it was only a matter of time before it reached a larger audience.”
It has been a whirlwind couple of months for Osaka, and the spotlight on her will only continue to burn brighter. She is now ranked comfortably inside the top 10 and will enter 2019 as the reigning Grand Slam champion. With a powerful game that resembles her idol and championship experience, we saw both the present and future of the WTA Tour on display for two weeks in Flushing Meadows, and Naomi Osaka is starting to embrace the attention.
“I am not an attention-seeker, but whenever I play tennis, I feel like it’s something that I am really good at and it’s something that I know—not that it’s a talent, but that I have worked on it for so long. I want people to watch.”
She certainly has our attention.
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for Long Island Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at email@example.com.