Naomi Osaka has well and truly come out of her cocoon.
Once the shy darling of the tennis world who regularly described herself as the “most awkward” player on tour, the Japanese star has transformed into the sport’s biggest trailblazer.
Watch LIVE coverage of the US Open from the opening round to the finals with ESPN on Kayo. New to Kayo? Get your 14-day free trial & start streaming instantly >
When the softly-spoken Osaka first arrived on the scene she was the queen of talking herself down, using press conferences to delight journalists with tales of cringe-worthy social interactions rather than searing analyses of opponents’ strengths and weaknesses.
Now, her voice is the loudest in the room — and with good reason.
RICHES AND RIGS ON SHOW
The two-time grand slam champion — who won the 2018 US Open and 2019 Australian Open — was unveiled as the world’s highest-paid female athlete in May, making $AUD57.2 million in the preceding 12 months.
It was the biggest number dropped by a woman in history, shattering the single-year earning mark of $45.5 million set by Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova in 2015.
Performing strongly on the court obviously helps with an athlete’s earnings but it’s off-court endorsements where the real money is. In this case, the evolution of Osaka from timid teen to marketing machine is remarkable.
Follow today’s matches in the live scores tracker above
An apparel deal with Nike saw Osaka collect $15 million in the past year while racquet-maker Yonex is another major backer. The 22-year-old also became a hot commodity ahead of the postponed Tokyo Olympics, with sponsors like Procter & Gamble, All Nippon Airways and Nissan jumping on board.
Not bad for someone who as recently as last year said she was still too nervous to say hi to her idol Serena Williams — even after beating the American in the 2018 Flushing Meadows decider.
But clearly, Osaka has become more comfortable in her own skin — literally. In July she hit out at critics after posting photos on social media of herself in a bikini.
“I just wanna say it’s creeping me out how many people are commenting @ me to maintain my ‘innocent image’ and ‘don’t try to be someone you’re not’,” Osaka tweeted.
“You don’t know me, I’m 22, I wear swimsuits to the pool. Why do you feel like you can comment on what I can wear?”
RAILING AGAINST RACISM
Tennis was shut down because of COVID-19 but Osaka — whose father is Haitian — didn’t need a racquet to make a statement about racial injustice when the police killing of American man George Floyd saw the Black Lives Matter movement explode.
She attended protests in Minneapolis, the city where Floyd was killed, and documented her involvement on social media. “Just because it isn’t happening to you doesn’t mean it isn’t happening at all,” she captioned several of her posts.
Once conditioned to avoid confrontation, Osaka now refused to back down when told by keyboard warriors to “stick to tennis”.
“I hate when random people say athletes shouldn’t get involved with politics and just entertain,” she tweeted in June. “Firstly, this is a human rights issue. Secondly, what gives you more right to speak than me?”
Speaking to Reuters, Osaka added: “I’m vocal because I believe in the movement and want to try to use my platform to facilitate change.
“That some people have said we as athletes should stick to sports is really insulting.”
OSAKA WALKS THE WALK
Talking the talk is the easy part — but Osaka walked the walk.
Last week the world No. 9 protested against police brutality and racial inequality by withdrawing from her semi-final of the US Open warm-up event, the Western & Southern Open.
Her decision followed the police shooting of black man Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. His maiming convinced NBA teams to sit out their playoff games, and Osaka was inspired to do the same, becoming the first tennis player to protest by laying down their racquet.
“Watching the continued genocide of Black people at the hand of the police is honestly making me sick to my stomach,” Osaka said. “When will it ever be enough?”
Largely, the tennis world backed her up. Play in the men’s and women’s tournaments was paused for a day as Osaka’s bombshell resonated throughout the sport.
When play resumed in New York, Osaka trotted onto court wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt. Then, before playing Misaki Doi in the first round of the US Open this week, she wore a face mask with “Breonna Taylor” written on it — paying tribute to another black woman killed by police in America this year.
Osaka brought seven masks with her to the grand slam bubble, each bearing the name of a victim of police brutality. She said she wants to win the major — she’ll need seven victories to lift the trophy — so the world can see every single one of those names.
She’s on track too, advancing into the quarter-finals as she seeks a second crown at Flushing Meadows. Osaka faces American Shelby Rogers for a place in the final four.
WHY NAOMI TOOK A LEAP OF FAITH
At first Osaka thought someone else would take the lead. The old Naomi would have held off for that person to step forward – but this was no time to wait.
“I always thought it would be nice if someone started in tennis. I’m more of a follower,” Osaka said when asked about her protest at the Western & Southern Open. “I was waiting and waiting and then I realised I was the one who was going to have to take the first step.
“I just feel like this is what I’m supposed to be doing in this moment.
“It’s definitely a bit eye-opening but in an odd way, because I only previously thought the Big Three (Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic) and Serena (Williams) would have that type of power.”
Tennis analyst Matt Roberts put it best when explaining the significance of Osaka’s stand.
“It’s especially impressive that Osaka did this in an individual sport where she didn’t know what the reaction was going to be,” Roberts told The Tennis Podcast.
“She didn’t have teammates to rally around her and I just think she deserves a lot of praise for going out on a bit of a limb and doing what she felt was right.”
LOVE LIFE ON FULL DISPLAY
Osaka hasn’t been shy keeping her followers up to date with her love life of late. The 22-year-old is dating American rapper Cordae, and most recently gushed about the artist in a touching birthday post.
“I always feel so lucky to be in your life and to be continuously learning from you. I’m so grateful that I can talk to you about anything and ask for advice (cause you know I need all the help I can get lol),” Osaka wrote on Instagram.
“I love that you lay down and wait for me to go to sleep before you go record. Etc because the list goes on forever … I hope you’re having the best birthday, I’m sad I can’t be there but I’ll make it up to you … I love you.”
The pair met at an NBA game and reportedly started dating early last year, but kept their romance out of the public eye. However, in another sign Osaka has learnt to embrace the spotlight, she’s more than happy to get gooey on the Gram.
Cordae isn’t the only notable feature of Osaka’s social media presence. She’s also uploading glamour shots from photo shoots and posting pics of her rocking some daring threads.
Sorry, did someone call her shy?
As far as we’re concerned, long live the new Naomi Osaka.