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Naomi Osaka’s steady climb to the top

Naomi Osaka’s steady climb to the top
February 21
22:12 2021

The tennis world has been set aglow lately by the superlative performances of Naomi Osaka, a precocious young lady from Japan. Her achievements on the tennis court might strike you like a fairy tale – like a “once upon a time” type of story — but they are not; Naomi is simply magical and a joy to behold.

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After relocating to Florida in the United States of America with her parents twenty-one years ago when she was barely two years old, Naomi set her sights on the future, aiming to become one of the greatest women tennis players of all time – and she has been making a steady climb to the top of her career.

At only 23 years old, our tennis superstar is already charming her way into the hearts of millions of tennis fans worldwide. Naomi has also blown my heart away with her creative style and incredible results. She is the best hard court player in the world making her the newest Queen of the Court.

Before now, I would sit in front of the TV to watch the legendary Serena Williams play – she is one of my favourite women players. Each time she lost a tournament, I would sulk like a baby. My wife is also her fan and she hated the idea of Serena losing a match. We also love watching Venus, the older sister of Serena who is Naomi’s close friend. These two sisters who behave like Siamese twins took the tennis world by storm more than twenty years ago.

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But losing the Australia Open semifinal in Melbourne last week to Naomi turned out to be a meltdown moment for Serena during an emotional press conference. She walked off the interview set almost in tears after admitting that she made a lot of unforced errors. Serena was clearly upset with herself but it appeared the question on saying “farewell” to the game that brought her fame and fortune triggered the raw emotions.

“I wasn’t nervous,” Serena said at the post-match press conference. “If ever I’m going to say farewell to tennis, I wouldn’t tell anyone,” she continued as she struggled with her emotions which eventually betrayed her. It was a difficult moment for the tennis champion with 23 Grand Slam titles to her credit and it was understandable. Naomi beat Serena – currently ranked No 10 in the world — in two straight sets 6-3 and 6-4 in a match that lasted 77 minutes.

Serena has been eyeing a career ambition of equaling – that is if she cannot surpass it — Margaret Court’s record. Margaret is an Australian retired tennis player and former world No. 1 who won 24 Grand Slam women’s singles titles; 19 Grand Slam doubles titles and 21 Grand Slam mixed doubles titles in her illustrious career. She was a right-handed as well one-handed backhand player. In 1970, Margaret became the first woman during the Open Era to win the singles Grand Slam. She retired in 1977.

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Having come close to achieving this goal on different occasions, Serena, now 39 years old, is probably giving up hope and this may well have been responsible for her emotional moment in Melbourne.

On the other hand, Naomi, our new kid on the block who admires Serena and draws inspiration from her, is young and she is forging ahead with grit and determination. She’s confident and she has more or less stepped into Serena’s “big” tennis shoes with a bright future beckoning on her. It may well be argued that Serena has handed over the baton, prompting Naomi to develop winning ways and set new records.

With twenty-one straight match wins, Naomi is certainly not looking back as she laps all the attention, affection and glamour she can get in her tennis career. According to Forbes magazine, Naomi is one of the highest-earning athletes in the world in the last two years. She earned an estimated $16 million in endorsement deals alone in 2019 which placed her second among all female athletes behind only Serena Williams who earned $25 million.

In 2020, Naomi became the highest-paid female athlete of all time, having earned $37.4 million in total, including $34 million in endorsement deals with brands such as Nike, Beats by Dre, MasterCard and Nissan. Overall, she was the 29th highest-paid athlete in 2020 and the eighth highest-paid athletes in endorsements alone.

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Between 2018 and this year, Naomi’s phenomenal rise to the top has seen her win four Grand Slam women’s singles titles – a truly extraordinary feat. Her latest Grand Slam title is the Australian Open she won last week. Our new tennis sensation gained instant fame when she beat Serena at the 2018 US Open Women’s Singles finals in two straight sets 6-2, 6-4 in one hour and 19 minutes inside the Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York. In that tournament, Serena and Naomi were seeded 17th and 20th respectively.

Naomi was only 20 years old. She became the first Japanese competitor to win a Grand Slam singles title and the youngest US Open champion since Maria Sharapova in 2006. Unfortunately, that final match was also a meltdown moment for Serena when she called the chair umpire a thief in an unfortunate temperamental outburst. Play was delayed with fans booing endlessly in what was clearly unacceptable conduct and bad behaviour by Serena. She was subsequently penalised.

Meanwhile, Naomi was calm as the drama played out, waiting for the game to resume as Serena who was obviously angry continued to throw multiple tantrums at the umpire. Winning a 24th major has always been on her mind and she loses her cool when she sees the chance slipping away.

But in the same way that we remember tennis greats such as Ivan Lendl, Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, Rod Laver, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, Serena must see herself as a tennis champion for all time when we also reflect on the outstanding performances of Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and her sister Venus.

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She has done very well with an excellent staying power and a distinguished career. There should be nothing to regret because it is on record that she’s No 1 in the all-time list, a distinction she happily shares with Margaret Court and Steffi Graf who won all four Grand Slam titles as a teenager in the same year in 1987. Who can forget the sustained rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova (famously noted as Queen of Grass) in the late 1970s that is still ranked as one of the greatest ever in all of the tennis?

Last year, Naomi was No. 4 seed and after trailing by a set 1-6, she rallied to a glorious victory, beating former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka in the following two sets 6-3, 6-3 of a highly entertaining match to win the women’s singles title at the US Open – her second US Open title. Before then, Naomi won the 2019 Australian Open women’s singles title which was her second Grand Slam title by beating Petra Kvitova from Czech Republic in a grueling match 7-6(2), 5-7, 6-4.

With her playing style and string of victories, Naomi is clearly inspiring young women around the world. If she continues on this path, she’s sure to join the elite club of tennis all-time greats. Our reigning Australian Open champ beat USA’s Jennifer Brady in two straight sets 6-4, 6-3 to win the title last week.

Naomi who turned pro when she was 15 years old is a right-handed aggressive baseline player – that is her major strength. She combines this skill with two-handed backhand and, more importantly, she relies on her serve – with good returns — which derives from her strong and devastating forehand.

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In addition, Naomi has one of the best serves in the world and she hits deep but she does not approach the net too often. Before the Covid-19 pandemic cloud disrupted global events, Naomi had been on the ascendancy in 2016 and 2017 but 2018 was her turning point and remarkable year. In 2016 and 2018, Naomi did not go past the third round at the French Open. It was the same outcome at the 2017 and 2018 Wimbledon Championships.

However, Naomi’s record shows that she has won a Grand Slam women’s singles title in four consecutive years but she’s yet to win the French Open and Wimbledon. She’s the first Asian woman ever to be ranked No. 1 in the world. At the 2018 US Open and 2019 Australian Open, Naomi won her first two Grand Slam titles in back-to-back Grand Slam tournaments and she’s the first player to achieve this feat since Jennifer Capriati in 2001.

As a change maker, the Japanese tennis queen is using her brand power to influence changes in the world for good. Apart from being a global celebrity as a tennis player, Naomi is also an activist — she is a crusader with strong convictions for social justice and racial equality. Naomi aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement to protest senseless killings of black people and she has used her face mask to full effect as a campaign medium.

When George Floyd was killed last year in racially motivated circumstances, Naomi flew to Minneapolis to join other protesters. In one Instagram post last August, she wrote: “As a black woman, I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention rather than watching me play tennis.”

Naomi was born to a Haitian father, Leonard Francis and Japanese mother Tamaki Osaka. They met in Sapporo, Japan while he was in college and she in high school. The mixed relationship divided their families and it took a long time before there was acceptance. Naomi has lived and trained in the United States since she was three years old. Her older sister, Mari, also plays tennis but she’s ranked below 300 in the world.

Their father was inspired to train them in tennis after seeing what Richard Williams did with Venus and Serena. Last month, Naomi announced that she had become co-owner of United States women’s soccer team, The North Carolina Courage. This is another side of Naomi that we do not know – giving back to society through empowerment initiatives.

The current rankings place Naomi as No. 3 player in the world after Ashleigh Barty from Australia (No. 1) and Simona Halep from Romania (No. 2). But the world is literally at her feet after her recent victory in Melbourne and with age on her side, Naomi has all it takes to earn additional major wins. Go on Naomi and just do it! Your fans will celebrate with you as they wait with bated breath.

Braimah is the Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of Naija Times (https://naijatimes.ng)

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