On a warm Saturday evening in Boca Raton, Naomi Osaka sits back in her chair on the deck of a fish restaurant and gently sparkles. She’s wearing a glittering silver sweatshirt with long gray ribbons dangling from the sleeves, bought at a boutique in Tokyo. Osaka was born in Japan and represents the country as a tennis player, but she lives here in Florida, and her sense of style lands somewhere between the two places—“a bit too wild for America, but too tame for Japan,” as she describes it before noting that in Tokyo, women often seem dressed for a movie premiere. “I find that really cool,” Osaka says. She’s drawn to Japanese designers, like Comme des Gar?ons, with edgy, sculptural sensibilities. Tonight, though, she’s adapted to local customs and wears clean white sneakers and faded jeans, with a pair of gold-rimmed aviator-style glasses from Coach resting on her nose.
When she is not hitting a tennis ball—something she does, these days, better than anyone in the world—-Osaka would, perhaps, rather her clothes do the talking for her. “I prefer to listen,” she says softly. Upon winning her first significant title, at Indian Wells in 2018, she told the crowd that she would give “the worst acceptance speech of all time.” When she won the 2019 Australian Open, not long after our dinner, she began her victory speech, “Um, hello, sorry, public speaking isn’t really my strong side.”
The public, which adores her, and the press, enchanted by her sense of humor, would disagree. Her interviews, in fact, are filled with laughter. “Every night before bed I would write jokes so I can present them to you guys,” she said during one press conference at the Australian Open. Asked to offer one, she laughed and replied, “That was a joke.” At the end of 2018, her idiosyncratic way of speaking was officially recognized when Naomi-bushi—“Naomi-esque”—was nominated as a buzzword of the year in Japan.
In any case, silence is no longer an option for Osaka: She has made too much noise with her racket. Last September, when she defeated Serena Williams to win the U.S. Open, Osaka went overnight from relative anonymity (outside of tennis circles, at least, where she has long been tapped as a potential superstar) to international celebrity, with a host of new endorsement deals ranging from Nissan to Shi-seido and a big new apparel deal in the works. There were think pieces about her multinational heritage (her mother, who is Japanese, and her father, who is Haitian-born, married in the face of resistance—biracial relationships were, and still are, rare in Japan). She was asked, more than once, to qualify the relative parts of her identity: To what extent is she Haitian? American? Japanese? She met the questions with polite resistance. Asked at one press conference about her identity, she answered, “I’m just me.”
So who is she? She purses her lips. “That’s such a complex question,” she says with a laugh. And though there is something Naomi-esque about her—something that can’t be captured by a label—one quality clearly defines her: She is relentlessly determined to become both a better tennis player and a better person. “We are all going to witness her growing up, on and off the court,” the legendary champion Chris Evert told me. “And it’s not going to be easy.” As extraordinary as Osaka’s success has been—she is the first woman since Jennifer Capriati, in 2001, to win her second major immediately after winning her first—her unselfconscious self-awareness, and her desire and ability to learn, have been even more impressive.
Osaka was born in the city of Osaka, Japan, in 1997. Her father, Leonard Fran?ois, was a college student studying in Sapporo when he met her mother, Tamaki Osaka; they dated for years before telling Osaka’s parents, who lived in one of the most ethnically homogeneous regions of a country that traditionally regarded foreigners with some suspicion. (They decided to give their two daughters Tamaki’s surname to make the practicalities of living in Japan easier.) When Naomi was three, she, her parents, and her older sister, Mari, moved to Long Island, where they lived with Fran?ois’s parents, Haitian immigrants. After school, Mari and Naomi would head with their father to the public tennis courts, where Fran?ois was intent on turning his daughters into tennis champions. In 2006, the family moved to Florida in order to focus on tennis. (Mari, who has struggled with injuries, is ranked around 300th in the world.) The family remains extremely close and still lives together in Florida. Osaka, whose shyness keeps her a little apart in the locker room, considers Mari her best friend.
One legend begets another: While her father followed the example of Richard Williams, Osaka studied Serena. (When I ask her who her role models were growing up, her mother, sister, and Serena Williams are the first three names she mentions; Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, and Drake come next.) She seems to channel both Serena’s ultra--competitiveness and her exacting expectations; even her game resembles that of her icon.
That forehand is a marvel: the quick and precise footwork as she moves behind the ball, her hands poised and her body turned and low; the long, looping backswing of her racket as her legs load power; and, finally, the explosive unleashing, with the force of it pulling her off her feet. That shot announced her even as a sixteen-year-old. She is still a first-strike player, but in the past year she has stopped trying to hit a winner with every shot; instead, she’s figuring out when to flatten her stroke and rip it toward the lines, when to add spin and play a bit more safely.
Part of this is due to her improved fitness, from working with conditioning coach Abdul Sillah, which has helped Osaka stay in points. And part is the influence of Sascha Bajin, Williams’s former hitting partner, who coached Osaka until they split shortly after the Australian Open. “There are other things out there than just hitting very hard,” Bajin said in Australia. “We worked on her angles. We worked on just a little bit more of everything.” But perhaps Bajin’s greater impact was mental. Training with Bajin was “interesting,” Osaka says with a smile. “Before I met him, I was more introverted.” He emphasized staying positive, knowing that she tends to play her best when not overwhelmed by self-criticism and negative emotions.
That said, “there’s a difference between saying it and actually believing it,” Osaka admits. After winning Indian Wells last spring, the biggest tournament outside of the slams, Osaka began the summer hard-court season with a three-match losing streak. What is remarkable, though—and what sets her apart—was how she recovered. “In the first match, I was pretty desperate,” she says, “and in the second I just wanted to win really bad, because I didn’t want to lose two in a row. The third match I just wanted to play well. I thought that was probably the most realistic way of thinking.” Her next match was the first round of the U.S. Open. She went on to win the tournament.
That final, of course, was marred by controversy, as an argument between Serena Williams and the umpire, Carlos Ramos, ended in an ugly scene: Osaka in tears during the trophy ceremony as the crowd, firmly on Serena’s side, rained boos upon her. But Osaka pushes back on the idea that the experience was a negative one. “It’s kind of weird to hear people say that,” she says. She had no ill will toward Williams, who remains her hero; the two players have exchanged text messages since. “The only thing I can do is keep moving forward and keep trying my best,” she says.
“That’s the sign of a champion,” Evert says. “You don’t look back.”
Osaka seems to view everything as a learning experience, on the court and off. She talks about striving to have a grateful attitude instead of turning negative after errors. She tries to answer even routine questions thoughtfully, pausing to pick her words. After her U.S. Open victory, Osaka watched a YouTube video of a biracial Japanese person discussing her win, and soon started to think a little differently about both who she was and what her success might mean. Parents began to come up to her and talk about her as a role model—something, she decided, that she wanted to live up to instead of letting that pressure crush her. When she describes her development over the past year, she talks about growing up, about maturing; when she talks about her rare patches of poor play, she uses words like “childish.”
In many respects, she is still a young woman transitioning to adulthood—with the habits of her generation. To relax, she plays video games or watches YouTube or listens to music on her phone. Even her hobbies, though, have about them the benefit of quiet exploration. When she travels, she—like her father before her—enjoys taking artful pictures, some of which she posts on a separate Instagram account from her official one. In fact, most adults never attain the kind of maturity that allows for Osaka’s uncanny balance of self-confidence and humility. (Some of that, too, surely comes from her parents. When she called her mother after winning the Australian Open, her mother yelled at her for not having yet gone to sleep.)
You could see how steep her learning curve was at the Australian Open. She had come into the tournament off a loss in the semifinals of Brisbane, after which she apologized for her on-court behavior. She was “sulking a little bit” because of some simple mistakes, she admitted. In the third round, against Hsieh Su-Wei, a notoriously tricky player who uses unusual spins and off-speed shots, she had gone down a set and, behind 2–4, 0–40 in the second, was showing frustration when she did something extraordinary: She laughed. And then she relaxed. “I just started thinking that I’m in a Grand Slam,” she explained afterward. “I shouldn’t be sad—I’m playing against a really great player, so I should just enjoy my time and try and put all my energy into doing the best that I can on every point.” Osaka had to grit out three-set wins in the third round, fourth round, semifinals, and the thrilling final, over two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, winning not only her second consecutive Grand Slam, but the number-one ranking in the world.
It was only a tennis tournament, but the way it played out demonstrated something more than simple skill. It might be too easy to credit her turnaround to a lightning-fast maturation—growing up, whether in the sport of tennis or in life, never works quite like that—and in any case, even at number one, Osaka has plenty of room to improve. “We still don’t know if she has a volley,” Evert pointed out, with a laugh of disbelief. Osaka has reached the top of the game, but not her peak potential. By the time the Tokyo Olympics come around in 2020, Osaka may well be the highest-paid female athlete in the world—something that will come with its own set of expectations and challenges.
There will be peaks and valleys as Osaka learns to take her experiences in stride. She lost her first match as number one, in Dubai, and, during her press conference afterward, broke down in tears. But her hypercompetitive nature isn’t going anywhere. “I can’t really think of a moment where I was playing something,” she says—and by something, of course she means anything—“and I didn’t want to win.”
In this story:
Sittings Editor: Phyllis Posnick.
Hair: Thom Priano for R+Co Haircare; Makeup, Marlene Castro.
Tailor: Olga Meverden.