Japan’s rising star

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Naomi Osaka admits that people “can’t really pinpoint what [she] is”, and are “surprised that she’s Japanese”, but while who she is might not yet be well known, what she is doing is quite clear – she’s a rising star on the tennis scene who is making more and more fans everywhere she goes.

Listening to Osaka talk, it’s not hard to tell that she’s just 18 years old and still new to the world of professional tennis; everything from her choice of language to her comedic answers to questions suggest that she’s still a young woman trying to figure out the almost surreal situation she’s found herself in.

Born in Japan to a Haitian father and Japanese mother, Osaka moved to the United States when she was young, and she trains primarily in Florida. Despite this, Osaka plays with great pride under the Japanese flag.

Osaka made her big breakthrough two years ago at a WTA event in Stanford, where she beat US Open winner Sam Stosur, and she’s worked her way up the rankings to 127th heading to the Australian Open, having won the inaugural WTA Rising Stars Invitational in Singapore last year.

Without a top 100 ranking or a wildcard, Osaka had to win three qualifying matches to make it into the main draw at Melbourne Park, and she’s certainly made the most of her chance.

After beating Donna Vekic in the first round of what is her maiden grand slam, Osaka continued to impress on Thursday when she beat Elina Svitolina 6-4, 6-4.

On the conclusion of the match, she gave the large contingent of Japanese fans a bow, much to their delight.

“Yeah, it’s the only part of my Japanese side,” she said of the gesture. “Kind of because there were a lot of people cheering for me, and I kind of wanted to show how grateful I was.”

She added of her newfound fans: “There were a lot of Japanese people and they were actually cheering for me. So I was like really happy… I always think that they’re surprised that I’m Japanese. So like the fact that there was like Japanese flags and stuff, it was like really touching.”

While some up-and-comers on the tennis scene may be rather brash and in your face (Nick Kyrgios, we’re looking at you), Osaka is quite reserved, appears composed, and very rarely shows too much emotion on court – although underneath the surface it might be a different matter entirely.

“In my brain I’m going, Oh, my God, why about like 90% of the time. But, you know, I feel like I try to smile sometimes just so I don’t throw my racquet. I’m not sure if I threw my racquet today. But, yeah, like I don’t feel like I’m composed. I keep hearing people say that, but I’m like, Whoa, okay.”

Asked if that meant a smile was her version of a racquet throw, Osaka responded: “Wait, yeah. Wait, wait. Sometimes I’m like actually smiling.” It’s hard not to find the teenager delightful.

Next up for the big-serving Osaka is a clash with the in-form Victoria Azarenka, a two-time winner in Melbourne, but Osaka isn’t worrying about that tall order just yet.

“Yeah, I’m pretty happy right now,” she said after beating Svitolina.

“I just wanted to qualify. That’s all I was expecting.

“But I don’t really like thinking about it too much because it freaks me out.”

Asked of her expectations against Azarenka she responded: “I don’t really have any. I just want to play really good. I know that if I play good, then maybe I can win.”

Not content with a big-name opponent, Osaka is also hoping to play on the biggest stage in Melbourne: the Rod Laver Arena.

“Hopefully the biggest one, Rod Laver. I kind of like big courts,” she said of her preference of courts, adding: “It makes me happy because it’s
kind of like I played all these matches to go on the big court, so going there makes me happy.”

Osaka’s third round match at the Australian Open will undoubtedly be the biggest of her career, but it seems unlikely that it will be the last time that she graces the game’s biggest courts.

Julia Harris