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THE CURIOUS CASE OF MS. NAOMI OSAKA

Do we put her on suicide watch or is she riding the pity wave all the way to the bank?

By Rich Neher

When Naomi Osaka beat Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open, I was happy. Not because I didn't like Serena, I'm actually a big fan of her. I was just happy a new face, and underdog showed up and beat the heavy favorite. Always a pleasure to watch that. Then I saw the photo at Arthur Ash stadium where she smiled and showed the trophy and her rapper boyfriend Cordae showed us all the middle finger. Quite disgusting, I said. I'm going to spare you the photo. It may have been a stunt to sell CDs but it did not make her any friends. She lost me as a fan from that day on and I can imagine that a lot of people thought the same.

But, I wanted to keep an open mind for this article. So I gathered facts, read articles, solicited opinions from some of our celebrity readers, and tried to get to the bottom of that phenomenon called Naomi Osaka who has a reported net worth of $45M.

Who is Naomi Osaka?

 

Wikipedia writes: Born in Japan to a Haitian father and a Japanese mother, Osaka has lived and trained in the United States since age three.  When Osaka was three years old, her family moved from Japan to Elmont, New York on Long Island to live with her father's parents. Her father was inspired to teach his daughters how to play tennis by watching the Williams sisters compete at the 1999 French Open. 

In 2006, her family moved to Florida when she was eight or nine years old so that they would have better opportunities to train. She practiced on the Pembroke Pines public courts during the day and was homeschooled  at night. When she was 15 years old, she began working with Patrick Tauma at the ISP Academy. In 2014, she moved to the Harold Solomon Tennis Academy. She later trained at the ProWorld Tennis Academy.

Although Osaka was raised in the United States, her parents decided that their daughters would represent Japan. 

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Naomi Osaka at 2020 US Open
(Wikipedia)

They said, "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." This decision may have also been motivated by a lack of interest from the United States Tennis Association (USTA) when she was still a young player. The USTA later offered her the opportunity to train at their national training center in Boca Raton, Florida when she was 16 years old, but she declined.

The Wall Street Journal writes, "Osaka started representing Japan when she was 10. She mostly skipped junior tournaments and instead played dozens of small International Tennis Federation events." Whether or not the fact that Osaka wasn't under the care of the USTA and didn't participate in their tournaments to some extent had a bearing on her later success is a legitimate question for another time. Do you think Patrick McEnroe felt sorry for not roping her in and justifying twenty million dollars a year for Player Development?

OBSERVATION 1

It's interesting that so much emphasis is being put on the narrative that Osaka always felt Japanese. Could it be that it was more like giving someone the middle finger? The USTA? The USA?

Professional Tour (abbreviated)

Osaka began entering professional events in 2012 at age 15 and turned professional a year later. During the next few years she had some success, struggled mainly on clay but continued to climb up the rankings. Injuries started to set in. After the 2017 season she hired Sascha Bajin as new coach and promptly won her first title: The 2018 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. The following month she beat Serena Williams in Miami.

When she beat Serena Williams for the second time in the 2018 US Open final, she won her first Grand Slam title.Osaka later said that the win was "a little bit bittersweet" and "it wasn't necessarily the happiest memory" because of the on-court dispute Williams had with the umpire..

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Naomi Osaka at 2016 French Open
(Wikipedia)

Endorsement Bonanza

 

And now the endorsements kept pouring in. A young woman of color who beat the best female player of the Open Era, and showed FEELINGS - few companies and none of the media could resist to jump on it. From the New York Times to Tennis magazine, everyone was salivating to show that the Obama era of feelings and being nice to each other was back - especially since Donald Trump was President, a man who was widely hated by much of that same media.

Wikipedia writes, "Osaka is one of the most marketable athletes in the world. She earned an estimated $16 M in endorsements alone in 2019, which placed her second among female athletes behind only Serena Williams who earned $25 million. The following year, she became the highest-paid female athlete of all time, having earned $37.4 million in total, including $34 million in endorsements. Nike has been Osaka's apparel sponsor since 2019, having replaced Adidas who had sponsored her for four years. With Nike, Osaka has a clothing collection featuring her monogram logo that uses her initials and is inspired by the Japanese flag. The Japanese sporting equipment manufacturer Yonex has supplied her with rackets since 2008. She plays with the Yonex Ezone 98 racket, equipped with Polytour Pro 125 and Rexis 130 strings. Osaka has been represented by the IMG management company since 2016.

Osaka is a brand ambassador for Japanese automobile manufacturer Nissan and Japanese electronics manufacturer Citizen Watch. She also endorses several other Japanese companies, including noodle maker  Nissin Foods, cosmetics producer Shiseido, the broadcasting station Wowow, and airline All Nippon Airways  (ANA). In January 2021, Osaka was named the brand ambassador for Tag Heuer watches as well as Louis Vuitton."

Success after 2018, split with Bajin, and beginning of mental issues - Coincidence?

Osaka rose to a career-high ranking of world no. 4 and she finished the year as the WTA Tour leader in prize money, having earned almost $6.4 million.

When she won the 2019 Australian Open, she also became the first Asian player to be ranked No. 1 in the world in singles. A lot of people doubted that the reason for her abrupt split with Bajin, the man who coached her to two Grand Slam Titles and to no. 1 in the world, were real. She stated that she was emotionally very down and she was not happy to be coming to practice every day. "If I'm not waking up every day happy to practice and happy to be around the people I'm around, this is my life. I'm not going to sacrifice that just to keep a person around."

The New York Post's James Matthey wrote: In his column for Sports Illustrated, (Jon) Wertheim suggested Osaka’s decision alludes to her flourishing self-confidence. He also said it’s not such a huge shock for players to split with coaches when they’re winning because mentors appear more valuable during the tough times.

“To me, the real story is Osaka,” Wertheim wrote. “In releasing Tuesday’s statement she made a more abstract statement as well. This was a decisive, unexpected move that perhaps suggests she’s more assertive and businesslike than one might have expected."

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Assertive and businesslike are the keywords here. The millions had started rolling in and she gained confidence, didn't doubt herself as much as before (thanks to Bajin). I can almost see her coach demanding a rigorous workout schedule and strong work ethics to keep the no. 1 position and that may have not sat too well with Osaka. Why work so hard when she could make MUCH more money with Nike or Luis Vuitton? Times were good and Bajin's work regimen did not make her happy. Don't you think that's more realistic? 

Years before Osaka alluded to her lack of happiness. Then the endorsements came in. I guess whenever she mentioned happiness and stress and mental pressure, the reporters came scrambling for interviews, and with those articles came even more endorsement. Could it be that Naomi Osaka found the perfect racket to make a ton of money? Even when she began losing now, the "lack of happiness" train would take her all the way to the sponsorship bank. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that Osaka is faking mental issues. I'm just hinting that one could be tempted to milk a situation for all it's worth. What the fans thought was probably not so important to her as long as the media was on board with her stories.

In 2020, Osaka played only 4 tournaments due to Covid and won the US Open again. Huge accomplishment, no doubt. Coached by her father.

Wkipedia: "During both of these tournaments in New York, Osaka drew attention for her activism. She had initially withdrawn from the Cincinnati Open before the semifinal to raise awareness for the police shooting of Jacob Blake, only staying in the tournament after they chose to support her cause by postponing the event for a day. At the US Open, Osaka walked onto the court for her seven matches wearing a different black mask, each of which with the name of an African American who had been killed in recent years often without significant repercussions."

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Naomi Osaka at the 2020 US Open

Now, I really believe that her activism is genuine and driven by her concerns about police brutality in the U.S. However, can you see the pattern? I am willing to bet some money that the subsequent reports in the media made some more sponsors come forward with offers. How much money did that stunt with the 7 different masks bring her? A cool million? Two? On the other hand, if it helped activists for that cause make their case, all the money and power to her!

Successes kept coming. When she won the 2021 Australian Open, she became one of only three players in the Open Era to win her first four Grand Slam finals, alongside Roger Federer and Monica Seles.

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Naomi Osaka at the 2021 French Open
(USATI)

L'affaire Osaka during the 2021 French Open

Wikipedia: "Osaka was seeded second at the French Open. Shortly before the start of the tournament, she announced that she would not conduct her mandatory media assignments. After Osaka won her first match in straight sets and did not hold a press conference, she was fined $15,000 and threatened with rising levels of fines and expulsion. The following day, she announced her withdrawal from the tournament, citing mental health issues."

The New York Times's star tennis reporter Christopher Clarey wrote "A Shocking Exit and a Sad Day for Tennis. Naomi Osaka, a superstar in the sport, pulled out of the French Open after she was fined for skipping a news conference. Did it have to end this way?"

Clarey quoted Martina Navratilova, a former No. 1 who has seen plenty of tennis turmoil in her 50 years in the game. “She tried to sidestep or lessen a problem for herself and instead she just made it much bigger than it was in the first place.”

Many fellow athletes and sponsors have voiced support for Osaka, with some noting a rarely discussed issue of mental health, although the overall reaction from the wider tennis community was mixed. On June 17, 2021, Osaka's agent announced that she would not participate in the upcoming Wimbledon Championships. 

At the 2021 US Open, she could not defend her title and actually lost her composure throwing a racquet and receiving a code violation for hitting a ball into the stands. However, she went to the post-match press conference and announced another hiatus from the sport "for a while", revealing that winning did not make her happy anymore. This was really strange after she just lost to Leylah Fernandez. So did she not want to win because winning didn't make her happy? I cannot wrap my head around her statement. And today she recalls that just 2 years ago when she beat Ash Barty in Bejing in 2019 that it was such a fun match! I have to ask myself: was she maybe again riding the pity wave, her gravy train to the bank? However, while her bank account grew bigger, she dropped in the rankings and was in danger of falling out of the Top 100.

When Osaka lost in the third round of the 2022 Australian Open, she made another strange statement. She described being happy despite the loss and discussed steps she is taking to improve her mental health and have "more fun on the court."

Indian Wells Roller Coaster

When she beat Sloane Stephens in the first round of the 2022 BNP Paribas Open, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 she looked strong and it seemed she would go deep into that Masters tournament. However, things started to fall apart for her in the second round.

CNN wrote, "Naomi Osaka was heckled by a spectator in the crowd during her match against Veronika Kudermetova at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California on Saturday. "Naomi, you suck," the spectator appeared to yell out following the first game of the match. The comment brought the four-time grand slam champion to tears on the court."

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Naomi Osaka at the 2022 BNP Paribas Open
AP Photo

"According to the Tennis Channel broadcast, during a break in play, Osaka asked the umpire for the microphone to address the crowd, but the umpire rejected the request. It is unclear if the spectator was identified and removed from the venue. Osaka would go on to lose in straight sets 6-0 6-4."

Opinions about that match were a dime a dozen afterward. The heckler interrupted her concentration at the worst time of the match, in the first game. Oy! I wonder if he was paid by Kudermetova? Just kidding, of course. 

Conclusion

I don't know, folks. I have read enough about mental illness in the last month to know it is a serious concern and needs to be addressed. I tend to believe that Naomi Osaka has real problems in that area. Her age, her advisers, and her fame coupled with more money than she would ever need probably all play a role here. She said she was suffering “long bouts of depression” since 2018, the year of her first US Open win. I don't know what kinds of questions she was asked during regular post-match press appearances that made her so wanting not to do them anymore. But she's now doing them like nothing ever happened.

Many reporters have tackled the issue with grace and understanding. One of them did not. I was shocked when I read Carron J. Phillips in DEADSPIN (Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise), who concluded his analysis of the case Osaka in his article Tennis doesn’t want Naomi Osaka around. Ever since she arrived on the scene, the sport keeps finding new ways to disrespect the young star by writing: "The irony is even more infuriating when you realize what happened to Osaka was just days after International Women’s Day, which takes place during Women’s History Month, and she was heckled by… a woman." He went on giving us this outrageous last line that got my blood boiling, "It’s not that tennis doesn’t love Naomi Osaka. It’s that society hates the greatness of Black women."

Wow! I'd say, Mr. Phillips of DEADSPIN, you're DEADWRONG! The society (the spectators) I know loves sportspeople of all color. They don't condone certain behavior, though. But the problem is always the organizer. When they punish Serena Williams and give Sasha Zverev a slap on the wrist, that's DEADWRONG. Tennis does not have a race problem. It does have a 'Good Old Boys" problem. Old white men making the decisions for decades. Unchecked. With no consequences. As long as they all get their President's Box tickets for the other 3 Grand Slams, their world is in order. Don't you think they should have been much more diplomatic at the 2021 French Open? How about putting a Psychologist on their boards? Dr. Phil to the rescue!

As far as Naomi Osaka is concerned, I think she has real problems. I also think she's milking the system to her financial gain with the help of woke reporters and sponsors with too much cash. Both issues come together for what seems the perfect racket for Ms. Osaka. Again, all the power to her. I'm reading that her sister Mari gave her the advice all her advisers and coaches should have given her 5 years ago: to see a therapist. And she's doing it. Good for her.

Lastly, just to put things in perspective, since 2021, the list of endorsements has gotten longer for Naomi Osaka. And she invested in companies and a professional soccer team (NC Courage).

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Naomi Osaka in Luis Vuitton
naomiosaka.com

     Sponsored by

  • Nike

  • Luis Vuitton

  • Levi's

  • Frankies Bikinis

  • Adeam

  • Strathberry

  • Nissin

  • Workday

  • Mastercard

  • Yonex

  • Tag Heuer

  • BEATS

  • GoDaddy

  • Morinaga

  • Panasonic

    Investing In

  • BodyArmor

  • Hyperice

  • Sweetgreen

  • NC Courage

  • Epic Games-Fornite

SportTechie Daily wrote: Naomi Osaka Joins Fortnite Icon Series
Tennis star Naomi Osaka has partnered with Epic Games to incorporate the four-time Grand-Slam event winner into their franchise title Fortnite through the game’s Icon Series. Osaka’s cosmetics in the game include two unique outfits, as well as pickaxes, gliders and a tennis-themed emote. 

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Naomi Osaka on Epic Games: Fortnite

I do understand that Naomi Osaka wants to maximize her value and cash in on her fame as long as she can. And since the number of kids watching her playing tennis on TV is probably close to zero, why not at least make some money with one of their "couch obsessions" - games?

Good for you, Ms. Osaka!

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What are other tennis insiders' opinions?

I asked a few of our readers what they thought about Naomi Osaka and here are their replies.

Naomi is an interesting figure in the game.  On the one hand, she is an aggressive player who likes to overpower her opponent and she also has a thoughtful quiet shy personality.  She doesn’t give you much on the court to read her emotions.  There have been a few players over the years who have openly said some of the things that she has said about winning and losing and the feelings of both.  I think that most players have those feelings at some point or another -not enjoying winning as much as being upset about losing.  This is especially true when you are near the top and are expected to win.    So the question for me is it a strong form of depression and anxiety which would take quite a bit of therapy to resolve or is it something that she can just work through on the court.  Old school treatment would be to “tough it out”.  More sympathetic treatment would be to analyze, treat, and work (talk) it out.   Social media could be something that is exacerbating the situation.  It can be so hurtful and make it tough to get over negative thoughts that could affect a player both on and off the court.  I am glad that I didn’t have to go through it.

 

STAN SMITH
Tennis legend, 4-times Grand Slam Champion

I know that Naomi feels and is very emotional when she is playing. I don't know what she feels so I can't say that she isn't. I think most importantly if she wants to continue playing tennis she needs to come to terms as to how she needs to deal with whatever emotion is keeping her from being able to play her best. Competition is pressure and pressure is a constant thing in one's life. It shows up more when you are performing or having to do something that requires thought, precision, skill, and execution. I don't think Naomi is ready to embrace performing especially at her best. When she's ready to dedicate herself to tennis and accept what comes with it good or bad I think she will find some comfort and knowing that this is where and what she wants to do. During our era, we were under a lot of pressure not only to perform on the court but off the court. We were building women's tennis and we also had to perform on the court. Imagine where we would be if we would have folded under the pressure we were surely under.

 

ROSIE CASALS

Tennis legend, 4-times Grand Slam Champion, one of the "Original 9" in women's tennis

Naomi Osaka puts front and center how mentally tough tennis is. When we enjoy watching the best play on TV we see how physically demanding the sport is. What we don’t see all the time is how being an individual on an island, fighting for your survival, is an integral part of being an all-time great. Yes, the emotional toll of tennis is the size of Mount Everest, giving us more reason to appreciate and celebrate the sacrifice of the greatest of all time. 

TAYLOR DENT

Former top U.S. tennis professional with 4 singles titles

Naomi Osaka clearly reflects the adage “To Each Their Own.” While a very young woman that has risen in tennis in a more than impressive fashion, she has also illuminated the athletic world with the need to adamantly address self-care and mental health.  Naomi has an obviously very sensitive nature that has been greatly affected, yet no matter how she’s subsequently mocked, ridiculed, satirized, etc., her decision to continue forward in life as she sees best, is what she does.  As a multiple Grand Slam Champion at 24 years of age, she evidently has the talent, commitment, and desire to play the sport of tennis.  As with the rest of humanity, as Naomi continues to experience finding the ability to acquire and achieve personal and professional balance in her life, that which hurts today may hurt tomorrow, but no longer be enabled to control her feelings.  

SHELIA CURRY

Executive Director, Black Tennis Hall of Fame

Naomi Osaka is a superstar, to judge her so harshly one must have enough empathy to watch her Netflix documentary and one line comes to mind “If I don’t make it my family will go bankrupt”. This coming from a very young Osaka. Hecklers will always be everywhere, and it is true that superstars must learn to deal with them, it is also true that at the end of the day superstars are also people with many limitations, fears, and problems. Indian Wells was the last incident, but the problem revealed itself in Roland Garros, where she complied with the rules and wanted to pay the fine and the four GS colluded to make sure she “dare” not do that or that her future income would be threatened. This is simply too much. Mental health is real and when a young person is a superstar it is not easy to handle, she is not less or more of a champion, she is still a young girl in her 20s, leave her alone.

JAVIER PALENQUE

Global Business Consultant, Tennis activist and USTA critic

For me, Naomi is a great champion. I can’t really comment other than I believe she is a leader and will continue to set new standards! She has a global reach that can shift our focus in our tennis community to areas that we have never looked at.  We need to take care of all of our players and people that are traveling the world on both WTA and ATP tours. Let’s help those that need help most and support them with anything they individually need. 

The pandemic has really added another level of pressure that has brought many issues to the surface we have neglected in the past! Mental health is one of them. She has my support and we need to continue to listen to her needs. 

SVEN GROENEVELD

Coach to the greatest tennis champions. Current coach of Bianca Andreescu.

NOTEWORTHY

All I know is that while ‘you suck’ is definitely on the tamer side of player abuse in recent times, how one perceives abuse like that is completely subjective depending on the person’s own lenses for how they view the world and their experience. Osaka seems to be, very sadly, not enjoying her time on the tour at the moment. I hope she manages to find a way back to happiness in tennis, and that we remember that while players deal with heckling and adversity differently, we can all choose to be kind in how we see others. That choice is very much conscious and usually costs nothing. Tennis players are athletes and competitors first and entertainers second, but it’s often very easy to forget that order when they’re performing and battling in a pit at the centre of thousands of people.

MATTHEW WILLIS, THE RACQUET

Answering a question in his "Indian Wells Mailbag"

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OBSERVATION 2

Again, I'm being reminded of that Japanese emphasis. Her remark about not being the happiest moment of her life, is so not Japanese. I learned from Jason Kottke that the Japanese people "care deeply how other people view their behavior. Much of what they do and say is tied to their image in society." He describes the importance of the “societal eye” in Japanese culture and calls it "The power of people's eyes around us."

So, I concluded there is much less Japanese in Naomi Osaka than she has us believe. And all the other incidents that will happen between September of 2018 and March of 2022 will remind me of that "societal eye" thing. It may be insignificant but I still want to point it out.