Naomi Osaka’s US Open win over Serena Williams gives Japan an unlikely hero after devastating typhoon and earthquake
Controversy could not obscure the old school thumping that the future laid on the past as new poster girl took down her idol
The boos rained down from on high at the towering tennis stadium named after the late Arthur Ashe, an indisputably honourable soul who would likely have been repulsed by the crowd’s surly behaviour during the trophy ceremony for the US Open women’s singles championship.
And so it was that a sprightly, enduringly cheerful and dominant 20-year-old biracial champion from Japan was reduced to lowering the bill of her visor over her tear filled eyes during what should have been the greatest moment of her young life. Of course this is New York City, don’t you know, so fuggedaboutit. This is our moment to be pissed, not your time to be happy. Understood, and your boorish reputation is intact so go ahead and get lost New York because you will not be allowed to kidnap the narrative of this moment, at least not here. Fuggedaboutit!
The most horrible of weeks in Japan began with Osaka and the western regions devastated by the most powerful typhoon to hit Japan in 25 years causing multiple causalities. But before Japan could even exhale, a thunderous 7.0 earthquake hit the northern island of Hokkaido, effectively shutting down both the north and central parts of the nation all within a 36-hour period. Even in resilient Japan, where natural disasters are a way of life, it was an unthinkable 1-2 punch.
Also unthinkable was the fortunes of the country’s top male and female tennis players, Kei Nishikori and Naomi Osaka, who became the first Japanese duo to make the semi-finals at the same time in a grand slam at the US Open. In a surprisingly listless performance, Nishikori was swept in straight sets by Novak Djokovic.
Osaka, however, produced another dominant showing in a tournament full of them by taking out American Madison Keys to become the first Japanese woman to play in a grand slam final – and against her idol Serena Williams. Born in Osaka to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, Osaka has been called the new face of Japanese inclusiveness in a country desperately in need of some. Her family, however, moved to the US when she was three and while she can understand a fair bit of Japanese, she is admittedly far from fluent.
In an engrossing and somewhat portentous feature story in The New York Times Magazine by Asia-based writer Brook Larmer on the eve of the US Open, Osaka’s father Francois admitted that he took a page from Serena’s father Richard and his coaching daughters to greatness plan.
“The blue print was already there,” he told Larmer. “I just had to follow it.” Initially, older sister Mari was the more proficient of the two but as Naomi grew and filled out she quickly eclipsed her. It was also decided that both girls would represent Japan in all competitions. “My dad thought that since I grew up around my mom and I have a lot of Japanese relatives,” Osaka told the Times Magazine. “I don’t necessarily feel like I’m American. I wouldn’t know what that feels like.”
Not since Kimiko Date reached number four in the world rankings in 1995, has Japan had a female tennis player of this calibre and because everybody loves a winner, the marketing opportunities for Osaka have been plentiful. “Osaka was already in big demand in the advertising field even before her incredible US Open run,” said Mike Nakamura, Managing Director of Dentsu, the largest advertising agency in Japan. On the eve of the US Open, she signed a deal with Citizen watches to go along with endorsement contracts from Nissin noodles and Wowow, a premium television network that had exclusive rights to the US open broadcast in Japan. By the time she reached the finals, her exploits had became mythical media fodder.
Tourism and PR executive Yoichi Hayasi is a long time tennis player and aficionado who dutifully arose at 5am to watch the women’s final with a great sense of anticipation. “I really don’t think Japanese people have been waiting for this moment because, honestly, we never thought we would ever have a grand slam winner,” he said. “But a couple of years ago Nishikori started getting some good results and planted the seed of possibility. And then out of nowhere, Naomi came along.”
He also admitted that Osaka has totally upended conventional sporting myths in Japan.
“The first thing that comes to mind is how sensationally talented she is,” he said. “She does not have any weaknesses in her game and the pace of her growth has been amazing. Secondly, the bigger the moment, the bigger she plays and that has always been an issue for Japanese athletes. We are so good in practise but often don’t shine on the biggest stage. But she was totally unflappable during the US Open and her composure at the age of 20? Remarkable.”
Well, at least one of the players was composed. And while Williams greatness is unsurpassed, so too are her dramatic interludes. When Osaka raced out to an opening set 6-2 victory, it was clear that Serena drastically needed to change course. However, her subsequent epic meltdown with the chair umpire during the final has now upstaged Osaka’s seminal moment in capping off an improbable couple of weeks by winning the second set 6-4 and capturing the championship. “I know in the US the story has become about Serena and the controversy,” said Hayasi.
“As upsetting as that may be to many in Japan, the fact that Naomi began by apologising for her victory and the way she respectfully bows to opponents after matches has endeared her even more to the Japanese public.”
Hayasi also articulated the common feeling among Japanese in regards to Osaka’s roots. “We know she is not 100 per cent Japanese and to many that may have been an issue in the past,” he said. “But she represents her mother’s country, and all of us, with pride, dignity and class. She is very easy to embrace.”
According to Nakamura, Osaka’s profile is about to explode, particularly with the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo on the horizon. “She is already an icon for the new Japan and that will only grow,” he said. The Japanese media are ravenous by nature and have been known to swallow up the celebrated, often with calamitous results.
“It will be interesting to see, particularly with the Olympics in two years, how Naomi and her management team handle the inevitable distractions with the media and corporate partners, who can be extremely demanding,” Hayasi said. “She doesn’t actively solicit the attention, like Serena or Maria Sharapova, so hopefully it doesn’t affect her tennis.”
Only time will tell. But for now, this fresh and unspoilt prodigy is not only the hottest property in tennis, she is the hottest property in sports, not to mention the US Open champ. The rest of the rancour and noise surrounding things? Fuggedaboutit