It would be tough to pick just one career-defining moment in tennis superstar Naomi Osaka’s recent past. There’s the 2018 U.S. Open, where she beat her childhood idol, Serena Williams. She followed up that emotional victory, which she’s called “a little bit bittersweet,” with her first win at the Australian Open in 2019.
And in the wake of those back-to-back Grand Slams, there was her surprise jump from Adidas to Nike in a groundbreaking deal worth $10 million.
But the events of late summer 2020 may stand apart from everything that came before, making an even more lasting impression than Osaka’s straight-set blowouts and coveted endorsements. The 23-year-old athlete did, in fact, win another U.S. Open singles championship in September on the heels of overtaking Williams to become the highest-paid female athlete in the world, with $37.4 million in earnings.
It was her social activism, though, that took her beyond the court and into the national dialogue. Accustomed to speaking mostly with her 125-mph serve and devastating forehand, Osaka has started to overcome what she’s dubbed her “crippling shyness” to share her opinions on racial injustice with her 3 million social followers and publicly support the Black Lives Matter movement.
She boycotted an August match in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., joining a number of pro leagues in an unprecedented work stoppage, and she showed up to each of her seven U.S. Open matches in a custom-made face mask bearing the name of a Black American victim including Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Tamir Rice.
“It was obvious to me that I had to take a stand,” says Osaka, whose on- and off-court journey will be depicted in an upcoming Netflix documentary. “This wasn’t about tennis for me.”
Though she was already being hailed as the future of the Women’s Tennis Association and a next-gen marketing magnate, Osaka’s opinions about systemic racism and defunding the police could, in certain corporate circles, be considered sponsor-unfriendly.
“Commercially, there’s an argument that she was risking a lot,” says her agent and manager Stuart Duguid, svp, IMG Tennis. “But the decision for her was easy. She was absolutely categorical about it, and she wasn’t going to change her mind.”
Osaka’s growing roster of brand partners, which includes Shiseido, Nissan, Citizen watches, BodyArmor and Hyperice, stood by her. Mastercard, part of her lineup for about a year, created a digital video with Osaka and Billie Jean King as a forum for the two champions to “authentically speak from the heart” about the challenges of breaking barriers and pushing for social change, says Michael Robichaud, the brand’s svp of global sponsorships.
“In this world of shouting, Naomi has a quiet voice,” Robichaud says. “But the way she’s using it, it ends up being incredibly loud.”
During a much-needed post-tournament rest period, Osaka, a multicultural member of Gen Z who was born in Japan and raised primarily in the U.S., spoke to nitronet about soul searching during quarantine, vetting potential sponsors, weaning herself from her favorite video games and possibly gearing up for another run at the Australian Open in the lead-up to next summer’s Olympic Games.
nitronet: This spring seems to have been an introspective time for you. Can you describe how you were feeling, how you decided to move forward on-court and off?
Naomi Osaka: Yes, the lockdown was definitely a time for self-reflection, and I did a lot of growing in that time. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been used to the daily grind of hitting tennis balls. I’d never really paused before, so while the Covid virus is of course a global tragedy, I have tried to use the time off to my advantage. I was able to remind myself what is important in my life and set goals accordingly—both personal and professional.