By Giri Nathan
It’s a bizarre feeling to witness firsthand the week where a person’s life unmistakably changes. But I guess tennis offers this sensation somewhat often. In March 2018, I sat and watched Naomi Osaka not just beat but blitz two of the top five players in the world, even serving a world No. 1 Simona Halep a bagel, en route to the title at Indian Wells. After beating Daria Kasatkina in the businesslike final, a 20-year-old Osaka delivered a speech that I invite you to watch in full, if only to savor one of the great victory addresses of our time, even if she described it as “the worst,” during the actual speech. It begins:
“Um, hello. Um, hi, I’m Nao—oh, okay, never mind. I’d like to thank the, um, tournament director”—here she wheeled left—“um, and the WTA and the staff and the physios—whoops, sorry”—now she wheeled right—“I’d like to thank Dasha, I’d like to thank Dasha, um, for being super nice and also being a really cool person to play against,” she said. “I’d also like to thank Dasha’s team, because they’re super nice too, and yeah, congrats. I mean, yeah, congrats.”
(These days Naomi is only tripping over her words when bumping into Jay-Z on vacation.)
“I would like to thank my team for putting up with me, and yeah, that’s basically it. And also supporting me,” she continued.
(Some of that team stuck around, but Osaka has since had three different coaches, including a brief and successful reunion with her first-ever coach—dad Leonard Francois.)
Later in the speech, Naomi racked her brain to thank her sponsors, asking aloud, “Did I forget?” both before and after the list.
(Now she can drop this polished rock of a quote in Forbes: “I’m really interested in seeing a young business grow and adding value to that process…. I tasked my team with finding brands that align with my personality and my interests.”)
When she hovered her hands over one of tennis’ biggest trophies for the photo op, the confetti cannons went off, visibly startling her. By January 2019, she would have two even bigger trophies courtesy of New York and Melbourne. And from June 2019 to May 2020, she would string together the most lucrative year of any female athlete ever, per a Forbes list this week. She made some $37 million.
Those richest-person novelty lists always make me skeptical of how the sausage gets made, but nobody who has watched Osaka’s rise to international prominence could doubt that she has secured the bag. Nike and Adidas warred for the right to make her clothes; Nike stole her away, and even granted her an extremely rare carveout that lets her bear other sponsors’ patches amid all the swooshes. The Tokyo Olympics were an endorsement windfall for the highest-profile athlete representing the host country, and cameras would’ve been fixed on her for a Netflix documentary the whole time. Naomi presents an appealing case study for sports marketers and thinkpiece assemblers alike, who analyze the ways that her intersecting identities—a Haitian-Japanese person fluent in the idiom of, and residing in, America—account for her extremely broad commercial and emotional appeal. A more charming path into this same territory is to just watch a video Naomi posts from home and read her joke about the Japanese her mom is speaking in the foreground, and the Creole her dad is speaking in the back.
Her self-presentation is more curated than it was in 2018, but seemingly not at the cost of saying sincere and even interesting things. Whether it’s hearing her rail against her own shyness, or express doubt about her own game out loud, she talks openly and without cliché in the conference rooms and online platforms that are mostly used to dispense Both Teams Played Hard platitudes. It’s absurd to remember that two years ago she could barely eke out a word in public, and now she is worth eight figures; those two traits are typically combined only at certain hedge funds and in pockets of Northern California. In the time since she hit No. 1, Naomi has played some pulverizing tennis, gone through slow spells, won a title in her birthplace Osaka, and struggled to match the (admittedly atmospheric) heights of back-to-back Slams. Who knows how she would have met the expectations of Tokyo? We’ll have to wait an extra year to know. But during this hiatus I can at least be grateful that a sport that’s struggled to mint a capital-S Superstar for roughly a decade can now point to one clear, charismatic example.
Above: Naomi Osaka after winning Indian Wells in 2018. (Getty)
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