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Naomi Osaka grows into leadership, on and off the court

23-year-old tennis star has world's ear like no Japanese athlete before

Japan's Naomi Osaka poses with the Australian Open trophy at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria on Feb. 21.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Winning the Australian Open on Saturday for her fourth Grand Slam title, Naomi Osaka has solidified her standing as one of the top tennis players in recent history. But her rise has not been limited to the court, as she emerges as a prominent voice on social issues including racism and gender equality.

"For us, it almost feels like she's gone somewhere beyond our reach. It's exciting to see that Japanese athletes can now have this sort of impact," Toshihisa Tsuchihashi, a top official at the Japan Tennis Association, said before the Australian Open finals.

Though Osaka is not the only Japanese athlete to have achieved global fame, she is perhaps the first whose voice has resonated so broadly, including in The New York Times, ESPN, the BBC and other leading international media, as well as among fans worldwide.

Born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, the 23-year-old Osaka's journey has not always been smooth. During last February's qualifiers for the Fed Cup, now called the Billie Jean King Cup, she appeared to struggle to maintain her composure, at one point throwing her racket in frustration.

"She was losing control of herself after a tragedy involving someone very dear to her," Tsuchihashi said of the time, referring to the helicopter crash last January that killed her mentor, former basketball star Kobe Bryant.

"She has since reflected on herself again and transformed during the coronavirus pandemic. That's one of the things that make her so compelling," he added.

Naomi Osaka plays against Jennifer Brady in the women's singles final for the Australian Open on Feb. 20. Osaka won the game and her fourth Grand Slam title.   © Reuters

When tennis tournaments resumed in August from their pandemic-induced hiatus, Osaka began showing her activist side, speaking out against racism and police brutality in the U.S. Broaching topics beyond sports took courage, but she continued to advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement while winning the U.S. Open in September. This victory was followed by a number of sports awards recognizing her impact.

On the court, Osaka has honed her skills in 2021. With her recent Australian Open victory, she now has won the third-most titles of any active female player, following Serena Williams's 23 and Venus Williams's seven.

Meanwhile, she has become a part owner of a professional women's soccer team in the U.S. "I will keep continuing to pay the love I have received forward and I'm excited to continue the legacy of women empowerment," she said in an Instagram post announcing her investment.

Osaka has expressed some anxiety about her growing influence outside of the court. "I got really scared because I felt like it put me into this light that was a nonathletic light that I've never been in before," she said at one news conference during the Australian Open.

"I feel like there is a lot of topics that people suddenly started asking me about that I completely didn't know about at all. For me, I only like to talk when I'm knowledgeable about the subject or at least know, like, one tiny grain of what I'm about to start talking about," she said. "So for me, I just came into this tournament just thinking purely about tennis."

She was confronted with such a topic shortly before the Australian Open, when Japan's Yoshiro Mori, then the chief planner for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic games, drew global outrage for saying that meetings with women "take too long."

When asked whether Mori should resign, Osaka hedged that she was a "tennis player," but went on to say "that was a really ignorant statement to make."

"I think if you're in a position like that, you really should think before you say anything," she said.

She also weighed in after Mori announced his resignation over his remarks.

"I think people used to accept the things that used to be said, but you're seeing the newer generation not tolerate a lot of things," Osaka said. "I feel like it's really good because you're pushing forward, barriers are being broken down, especially for females."

"We've had to fight for so many things just to be equal," she added.

Naomi Osaka speaks to reporters after winning the Australian Open. She has become increasingly vocal on social issues like the Black Lives Matter over the past year.   © Reuters

Osaka was the top-earning woman on Forbes' 2020 list of the world's 100 highest-paid athletes at $37.4 million, ranking 29th overall. She and Serena Williams were the only women in the top 100, most of which were dominated by soccer, basketball and American football players.

Osaka is only expected to become a bigger opinion leader in coming years. Billie Jean King, former No. 1 player and founder of the Women's Tennis Association, has advised her from time to time, signaling her hopes for the younger athlete.

Having won more than three Grand Slams and spending at least 13 weeks as the No. 1 player in the world, Osaka already qualifies for a spot in the Tennis Hall of Fame. But tennis watchers say she needs to win all four Grand Slam tournaments -- including the French Open and Wimbledon -- to join the ranks of the sport's true elites.

Osaka, however, says she has an even greater goal to accomplish.

"The biggest thing that I want to achieve is -- this is going to sound really odd, but hopefully I play long enough to play a girl that said that I was once her favorite player," she said.

Though she was never able to play China's Li Na, one of her favorites, she has had several matches with Serena Williams, another of her tennis idols. "Every time I play [Williams], I feel like it's something I'll definitely remember a lot," she said.

"The biggest thing that I can do is inspire people, inspire kids, and it really makes me happy whenever I see them just cheering me on," Osaka said.

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