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Interview

Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka looks beyond center court

Pandemic shutdown gives ace time to develop business outside of pro circuit

With professional tennis halted, Naomi Osaka has been waiting out the pandemic with daily workouts and devoting more time to off-court business.

TOKYO -- People around the world remain hunkered down at home as the novel coronavirus continues to rage. Japanese tennis phenom Naomi Osaka is no exception.

With professional tennis canceled until mid-July at least, Osaka has been working out daily at her home in Los Angeles to keep her swing sweet. But the shutdown has also provided the 22-year-old time to focus on business interests outside the sport.

Osaka was after her second consecutive Australian Open crown in January before being ousted in a stunning straight-set loss to 15-year-old American Cori "Coco" Gauff in the third round.

She flopped again in the Fed Cup between Japan and Spain in February, losing her concentration and the match to 78th-ranked Sara Sorribes Tormo, again in straight sets.

Looking to regroup, the 10th-ranked Osaka stayed away from the circuit for a while. She hoped to gear-up for the prestigious BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, where she won her first tour tournament in March 2018.

Unfortunately, the pandemic got in the way, as the tournament was canceled before the scheduled March 12 start.

Osaka continues to train at home in Los Angeles as she awaits the restart of the pro tennis circuit. (Photo courtesy of Naomi Osaka)

"I was feeling really good during my training block [in February] and definitely felt ready for Indian Wells," Osaka said in an interview with Nikkei. "At the time, everything was changing very quickly, so we had to take it day by day," she said. "Now, of course, we know just how serious the situation is and agree that canceling was the right decision. It's much more important to keep everyone safe."

Osaka voiced similar sentiments about postponing the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo until next year.

Despite her success in professional tennis, Osaka is looking beyond center court, debuting at New York Fashion Week in February with a collection of outfits designed in collaboration with Japanese designer Hanako Maeda's Adeam brand.

"I've always been passionate about fashion. I have memories of my parents driving my sister and me to tennis matches, and to pass the time, we would sketch clothing designs," she said.

She described her work with Maeda as "a dream come true," adding that she would "definitely want to continue to develop my design skills and knowledge of the fashion industry."

Image from Osaka's Twitter account showing photos during New York Fashion week.

As top tennis pros continue to rake in nose-bleed incomes, many are venturing into businesses outside their comfort zone before hanging up their rackets.

Swiss tennis star Roger Federer and Spanish counterpart Rafael Nadal are part of this elite group. Federer launched a management company, while Nadal inaugurated his eponymous tennis academy, which hosts an ATP Challenger Tour tournament. Meanwhile, American Serena Williams already has her own fashion brand and Russia's Maria Sharapova is running a candy enterprise.

Osaka wants in, and soon. "I am really interested in the business side of my career. Most of the time athletes wait until the end of their career to do this, but I think it makes sense to be smart about my business from early on," she said.

"I trust my business team to bring me great ideas and then we decide together. I'm lucky to have some great partners in Japan," which include Japanese noodle company Nissin Foods and All Nippon Airways, part of ANA Holdings.

Osaka has a few favorites in the athelete-cum-businessperson role, namely National Basketball Association players LeBron James and the late Kobe Bryant, rather than fellow tennis stars Williams and Sharapova. "Maria and Serena's businesses are definitely interesting, but I follow more closely LeBron's and Kobe's businesses," she said.

The two NBA stars had at least one thing in common: Branding themselves as a precursor to developing businesses. Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash in January.

Social media is part of the branding process, and until recently Osaka has been pretty much all in. But in early April she tweeted, "Sorry I haven't been active recently. I've been real busy doing nothing."

"[The tweet] was kind of a joke," she said. "Usually I have the same routine where I practice and train or compete, so my schedule has changed a lot. "I've been filling the time with other hobbies [and] have continued to train at home."

For child prodigies who grow up traveling the world, spending quality time at home is a rarity. With the pandemic forcing many into an unaccustomed lifestyle, many tennis players are using social media to show their fans what they are really like off court.

Osaka is now cooking more as well as indulging in other hobbies. "I've never had this amount of free time in my life and probably won't experience it again during my career," she said.

"I've been trying different recipes, with varying levels of success, and have been drawing. My sister Mari is very artistic and I've been trying to keep up [with her]," she said.

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