Naomi Osaka’s tennis has been doing plenty of talking. Now, she’s finding a voice to go with it. One of the game’s most promising talents, the 19-year-old’s turbulent tweets are taking thousands of supporters inside the world of a shy teenager joining the pro tour.
And her fans? They appreciate every step of that journey.
They are just the same.
Osaka, the daughter of a Haitian-American father and Japanese mother, grew up in New York City and Florida. At the outset of her career, she elected to represent Japan on the international stage. She has learned to embrace a language and a culture; embrace support on both sides of the Pacific; and embrace the occasional awkward encounter on the streets of Tokyo.
“Fans kind-of follow me,” she says, laughing. “And then if there’s one person that comes up to me, they all come up to me. They’re very shy.”
Osaka likes that, though. She can relate. Her priority this year has been simple: “Be less introverted.” If tennis pros are supposed to ooze confidence, Osaka proves it’s not so simple behind the scenes. Her tweets, to 10,000 followers, reflect no airbrushed pro sports lifestyle: they tell tales of teenage self-doubt as she grapples with blossoming celebrity status – and life.
Reading them is like heading to a tennis high school where your classmates are the Williams sisters.
But Osaka is conquering this new world. “It’s going pretty well,” she says. “I’m kind-of new … and before last year I was just listening to music and not talking to anyone. This year, I’m trying to go out of my way and start conversations.”
“I tried my best to say a few complicated Japanese words to the fans because I really wanted to show my appreciation for them coming and supporting me at every match.”
Osaka has grown to love her unique mix of fans at events on tour – Japanese and United States flags mingling – and her understanding of what it means to represent Japan is growing. Partly, that’s down to Kei Nishikori: the 27-year-old Osaka describes as “like a national treasure” in Tokyo.
Nishikori is the only Japanese player ever to make the world top 10 in men’s singles. While Osaka is becoming a bona fide celebrity, Nishikori has been a superstar for years.
“Every time I turn on the TV in Japan, he’s there,” says Osaka. “When I see him in person, I get shy. Somehow, whenever I win my matches and we’re at the same tournament, he’ll say congratulations and I always get very shocked.”
But Osaka is learning from Nishikori, the same way she has spent her life learning from Serena Williams. Williams has already taken notice of Osaka. In 2016, the US great described the teenager as “really young and really aggressive … very dangerous”.
In return, Osaka sees Williams not only as an era-defining player with 23 Grand Slam singles titles, but as a personality shaping a sport. That’s a role Osaka aspires to fill.
“I don’t think anyone can be the next Serena. I want to be the next me but if I can even come close to being as great as Serena, I’ll be very happy,” she says.
“Since I was younger, a lot of Serena’s fans have known who I am. Maybe it’s because I really like Serena a lot. But they come to my matches and they’ve been really supportive. I really want to build a bigger base and become one of the great players in tennis.
“Hopefully I can become an inspiration for young Japanese tennis players like Kei is. I know there’s a gap right now for Japan’s women’s tennis. I kind-of want to fill that gap. To be a good player and a good person off the court, to branch out of tennis and do other things.”
Becoming that inspiration gets easier with every month her impressive rise continues, and Osaka has outlined high expectations of herself in the years ahead. “Hopefully – well not hopefully, I demand myself to be in the top 10,” she says. “Hopefully top five. And to be great at everything I do.
“Practice every practice like it’s the last practice. Never give up on anything I do. And have fun.”
That mission’s next stop is a return to the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo. Osaka can’t wait to demonstrate how far she has come.
“The biggest thing,” she says – confidently, this time – “is that I have learned I can play with anyone.”