Tennis: Osaka's elevation from shy youngster to face of women's tennis

MELBOURNE (AFP) – Naomi Osaka’s ascension has been an uncomfortable climb at times, but the 23-year-old’s zen-like mentality and increased gravitas on and off the court leaves her well poised to handle being the face of women’s tennis .

The world No. 3 is one win away from her fourth Grand Slam title when she plays American Jennifer Brady in the Australian Open final on Saturday (Feb 20) in what could cap a defining campaign.

Osaka resoundingly beat Serena Williams in the semi-finals and seems destined to inherit the American great’s mantle as the face of tennis.

It’s a far cry from one year ago when a rattled Osaka felt the strain of expectations as her Australian Open title defence fell apart with a shock loss to a 15-year-old Coco Gauff in the third round.

“She looked very nervous to me, she was under pressure, and she only looked like that because she was not expressing her feelings,” her coach Wim Fissette said.

Weeks later, Osaka was embarrassed as she won just three games against Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo in a Fed Cup tie.

“There’s just a lot of stuff that happened there, surrounding that time, that it really made me think a lot about my life,” she said.

“What is the reason, I am playing tennis to prove stuff to other people or am I playing to have fun because I enjoy it.”

But things turned during the pandemic, when Osaka gained new perspective and became a vocal leader in the fight against racial injustice in the United States.

Her increased gravitas has fuelled Osaka on-court and she takes a 20-match unbeaten streak into Saturday’s final, a run that included winning last year’s US Open title for the second time.

“I think the thing that I’m most proud of is now mentally strong I’ve become,” she said.

“I used to be really up and down. For me, I had a lot of doubts in myself.

“I think, the quarantine process and seeing everything that’s going on in the world, for me it put a lot into perspective.”

Once shy and uncomfortable in the spotlight, Osaka used her growing stature to weigh in on controversial topics at Melbourne Park, even condemning ex-Tokyo Olympics boss Yoshiro Mori for sexist comments.

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Osaka has become the world’s richest female athlete, overtaking her idol Williams, but she’s maintained a humble and respectful attitude amid her rise to stardom.

Born on Oct 16, 1997 in, coincidentally, Osaka, Japan, she was still a year away from moving to the United States on a permanent basis.

Her Haitian father Leonard met and married her mother Tamaki having decamped to Japan from New York where he had studied.

Now based in Florida, Osaka has dual Japanese-American citizenship.

Osaka developed into a big-stage player after making her Grand Slam debut at the 2016 Australian Open.

It took a few years to find her feet before she stunned Williams with a straight-sets victory in a controversial 2018 US Open final and backed that up with a triumph at Melbourne Park just a few months later.

Osaka, at just 21, powered to world No. 1 but she felt unfulfilled.

“I think that also put a lot of pressure on me because I just felt in a way it was me against the world,” she said.

It led to a difficult period where she felt burdened by expectations until heeding a more relaxed demeanour.

And she now has the tennis world at her feet.

“I used to weigh my entire existence on if I won or lost a tennis match,” she said.

“That’s just not how I feel any more.”

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