I THINK A LOT OF YOUNG PEOPLE CAN SEE THEMSELVES IN HER, HOW PRESENT SHE HAS BEEN IN SPEAKING OUT, IN FIGURING OUT WHAT SHE WANTS TO STAND FOR, AND STEPPING INTO NEW ROLES
“I feel like I’m living in a what-if right now,” Naomi Osaka said after she won her fourth Grand Slam title at this year’s Australian Open. “It’s really weird when you get to that final point, you start trembling because you can think of the ‘what-ifs.’”
Just about everyone who has ever played tennis knows what it’s like to tremble as the finish line approaches and victory is in sight. Few of us, though, have ever experienced what-ifs as monumental as Osaka’s. Even fewer have turned them into reality with the cool efficiency that she has.
What if, Osaka may have wondered when she was younger, I win major titles? What if I become No. 1? What if I beat my idol, Serena Williams, in Arthur Ashe Stadium? By the time she was 21, Osaka had made those dreams come true. But it turns out she was only getting started. In the two seasons since, the Japanese native and Beverly Hills resident has gone beyond what-if, into realms of success she likely never imagined entering.
In 2019, Osaka earned $37.4 million, the most ever for a female athlete in a year. In 2020, she used her status to draw attention to pressing social issues in the United States, and was named one of Sports Illustrated’s Sportspeople of the Year. In 2021, Osaka has picked up right where she left off. At the Australian Open, she saved two match points against Garbine Muguruza, faced down Williams again in the semifinals, and extended her record in the final three rounds at majors to 12–0.
All of which has left Osaka confronting a new what-if: Is this soft-spoken 23-year-old the new face of the game? Can she define her WTA era the way Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Serena defined theirs?
For now, Osaka isn’t letting this particular what-if get into her head. Asked earlier this year how she was “grappling with being the face of women’s tennis,” she shut the idea down quickly.
“Honestly, I don’t feel that way,” she said. “I don’t know, there’s so many interesting new people. I think I’m one of the new people. As long as Serena’s here, I think she’s the face of women’s tennis.”
It’s not that Osaka doesn’t want to have fans, or a place in the sport’s history. When she talks about her career goals, she says, “Hopefully I play long enough to play a girl that said I was once her favorite player. I think that’s the coolest thing that could ever happen to me. I just think that’s how the sport moves forward.”
But Osaka also understands she can’t be all things to all people, and she’ll only stress herself out by trying.
“Let’s say I play a match and I slam my racquet,” she said. “I would get, like, very nervous about it, because I wasn’t sure if I would get very bad press over not being a great role model.
“Over the years I’ve just realized, like, the only thing I can do is be myself. There’s 500 other tennis players if you want to pick to be your role model. So I feel it’s a really big honor that there’s little kids that like me, that come to my matches and cheer for me. But at the same time, I don’t want to weigh it too heavily on myself, because I’m still growing as a person, and hopefully they grow with me.”
Osaka may be unwilling to proclaim herself the future of the women’s game, but other veterans of the WTA scene aren’t so hesitant.
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