Tennis

Her drive to become a tennis champion related to family – first she wanted to beat her sister, then to help her parents. Now, after a crisis of motivation, Naomi Osaka is determined to win for her daughter. By Ben Rothenberg.

Motherhood is the new inspiration behind Naomi Osaka’s tennis

Naomi Osaka smiling on court with a racquet in her hand.
Naomi Osaka during a training session at Melbourne Park on January 7.
Credit: Graham Denholm / Getty Images

Naomi Osaka knows how to hit a tennis ball better than almost anyone on Earth. From her shock win as a 16-year-old over former US Open champion Samantha Stosur in 2014, through to her four major titles, Osaka’s ball-striking know-how has been steady and sure-fire.

The shakier part of Osaka’s tennis career has not been knowing how to hit the ball but knowing why she’s hitting the ball. Much like her peer Ash Barty, Osaka’s desire to continue playing on the WTA tour flickered and burnt out in 2022. But where Barty announced a retirement that has stuck, Osaka returns to Australia this month with reignited purpose, having found fresh inspiration from another generation of her family.

“I’ve never been a person that’s really good at playing for myself, if that makes sense,” Osaka said last month.

    

Like many tennis stars, Naomi Osaka was propelled towards the sport before she had any say in the matter. Her parents, Leonard François and Tamaki Osaka, saw a reflection of what their daughters could become through their television screen one fateful night in 1999. Watching the Williams sisters win the French Open women’s doubles title, the couple envisaged that type of success for their own two daughters, and soon uprooted their lives in pursuit of a long-shot dream. They moved from Japan to New York and then from New York to Florida, pulling their daughters out of normal schools to begin full-time tennis training.

Tennis had been her parents’ idea, but Naomi, who began playing at age three, found her motivation within her own family – she wanted to beat her sister. Eighteen months older, Mari Osaka dominated their head-to-head matches on public courts across New York and Florida, but Naomi’s determination drove her. “I don’t remember liking to hit the ball,” Osaka said. “The main thing was that I wanted to beat my sister.”

Finally, when she was 15 or 16, Naomi beat Mari for the first time. “Honestly that’s my No. 1 victory, like way before like all the grand slams and stuff like that,” she said years later.

While Naomi had been determined to beat Mari to gain the upper hand in the household, her bigger motivation soon became making sure the household had a roof to live under. In the summer of 2014, with neither daughter’s career proving profitable, the Osaka family faced eviction from their Florida apartment. Leonard spent his days on court with his daughters, so hadn’t held a full-time job for years; Tamaki worked long hours but struggled to keep the family afloat as they accrued tennis expenses.

The dire straits forged a superpower in 16-year-old Naomi. Despite being ranked outside the top 400, she won two matches to qualify for the main draw of the WTA tournament in Stanford, where she beat Stosur in a three-set thriller to reach the second round. The $10,000 of prize money, as well as the endorsements earnt by her flash of brilliance, was enough to pull the family back from the financial brink.

Osaka continued to be motivated by her family’s finances: her next goal was to make enough money for Tamaki to give up work. Upon winning the prestigious Indian Wells tournament in 2018, Osaka had suddenly, by the age of 20, accomplished everything she had worked towards. Her first crisis of motivation came weeks later, during a tournament in Charleston. “I was just thinking, like, What is the point of my life?” Osaka later said. That week, she described herself as “depressed”. “What I felt today, I’ve never felt it before,” she said.

The next chapters of Osaka’s life were some of the most public. She won her first grand slam title at the 2018 US Open, beating her idol Serena Williams in a final that was overshadowed by Williams’ disputes with the chair umpire. Osaka later described the win as “bittersweet,” an unusual flavour for a first major title. She reached the WTA No. 1 ranking for the first time when she won the 2019 Australian Open. After she lost the top spot to Ash Barty, Osaka found new motivation and purpose from the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. Finding her voice as an activist, Osaka wore the names of seven victims of violence as she won seven matches to take the 2020 US Open. She won the next major she played, too – the 2021 Australian Open.

Again, Osaka struggled with success. She was earning more in off-the-court endorsements – US$50 million a year – than any female athlete in history, but she was losing herself. To try to mitigate the pressure and scrutiny she felt, Osaka decided she would opt out of the mandatory press conferences at the 2021 French Open. Instead of reducing the attention, the miscalculated gambit made Osaka a subject of international scrutiny and scorn – and then sympathy and solidarity once she revealed her struggles with mental health as she withdrew from the tournament.

None of the attention, positive or negative, was easy. And with her family financially secure, Osaka’s drive dwindled. Her long-time coach, Wim Fissette, had a conversation with her in mid-2022 for “some clarity” on her motivation. “[S]he couldn’t really give me a lot of answers,” he said. The two split soon after. After a string of losses, Osaka’s ranking stalled outside the top 40. She didn’t hire a coach to replace Fissette and soon stopped entering tournaments. She admits she considered not returning to the sport. “For like a month, maybe, I was thinking about it because I felt like all my joy went away for the sport,” Osaka said recently. “I felt like it kind of wasn’t fair, both for the people watching and myself.”

    

But then, Osaka was suddenly more than just herself. She became pregnant with her daughter, Shai, and gave birth in July 2023. Rather than seeing her child as a reason to recede from the sport, Osaka saw motherhood as inspiration to recommit. “With Shai, I want her to see someone that has big goals and dreams,” Osaka said. “I think that’s really important, to have really good role models.”

Osaka’s family motivation had now reached its third generation. “I kind of like the feeling of the responsibility of having to take care of Shai, and wanting to show her around the world,” she said. “I feel more like I’m playing for her.”

Osaka’s new motivation was striking to those who knew her. Fissette was convinced to come back to the team and was immediately impressed by how Osaka spoke about her career, saying it was like he was coaching “a different person now”. “If you have the chance to do the greatest things in front of your children, that’s the next level [beyond] doing it for yourself,” he said. Once they started training together for this season, Fissette found Osaka working hard and eager to learn “like never before”.

 

Osaka’s play at her first tournament back on tour, the Brisbane International in the first week of this month, was sparkling. She was hitting the ball as well as ever and seemed emotionally buoyed and anchored in waters that had so often been choppy for her. She cited the ballast of motherhood.

“A part of me felt like Shai was watching me,” Osaka said after her first-round win in Brisbane. “I wanted to do my best for her.”

After losing a remarkably high-calibre second-round match to fellow former No. 1 Karolína Plíšková – a stellar three-setter where Osaka hit 40 winners and just 12 unforced errors – Osaka said she took most pride in what she had rediscovered within herself.

“I had to relearn myself a lot and I just relearned that – this is my opinion – but I think I have a lot of heart,” she said. “I think when I’m playing and I’m at my best, I’m just really putting my entire soul into every point. It was fun to play that and rediscover that feeling again.”

Naomi Osaka, a two-time champion in Melbourne, will be unseeded at the 2024 Australian Open. But with her motivation and her form both clear, she will be among the competitors the rest of the field will least want to face.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 13, 2024 as "How Naomi got her groove back".

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