World eyes Osaka during Australian Open 2021

Naomi Osaka pictured before her match with Victoria Azarenka in 2020. Her mask is one of several she wore in the US Open tournament to bring attention to Black victims of racial violence. // Photo courtesy of Seth Wenig Associated Press

Casual sports followers will recognize Serena Williams’ name amongst the many playing at the upcoming Australian Open, but she may not be the most exciting, even for American fans. The tennis legend will face a number of younger rivals, potentially including the reigning U.S. Open Champion Naomi Osaka. This Japanese-Haitian-American athlete holds three grand slam singles titles at age 23. Even this early in her career, the question arises: how much will this tournament help Osaka cement her place as the next household name of the tennis world?

At age 39, Williams continues to stand as an objectively elite athlete while reaching the upper age limit on athletic ability. Analysts have long held that between the pressure of the solo sport and the commercial distractions that come with it, Williams would need a consistent rival to keep herself motivated. In the past, it’s been Maria Sharapova, her sister Venus Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Kim Clijsters, and many others in her long career.

She currently sits at No. 11 on the Women’s Tennis Association charts.

“You win everything in sight for a couple of years, and congratulations: You’re Martina Hingis. So what does it take to become Martina Navratilova?” posed ESPN’s Mark Kreidler in a 2003 article about Serena. “Genuine rivalry, it says here. And what’s so fascinating about that notion is it is one of the very few areas on the court Serena Williams honestly cannot control.”

Osaka, currently ranked No. 3 by the Women’s Tennis Association after winning the U.S. Open last fall, had her first clear moment in the spotlight as a potential William’s rival in the 2018 U.S. Open. In the memorable match, Williams received three disputed coaching violations including a point penalty for crashing her racket in the ground in frustration. The game ended in boos from the crowd and tears from Osaka who was understandably overwhelmed at beating her tennis idol in the contested match.

“I’m someone who grew up playing tennis and wanted to become good enough to play on a global scale, and somehow, I did it,” Osaka said in an interview about her tennis idols.

“My family will always be my number one influence, and I really admire Serena Williams. I have quite a few role models, actually. Having many role models is great because you can draw traits from each of them and build your own ideal,” Naomi Osaka said.

The two have faced each other twice since, with Osaka and Williams taking a win each.

In the meantime, Osaka became the highest paid female athlete ever, earning $37 million from 2019-2020 according to Forbes. Beyond earnings from prize money, Osaka receives endorsements from several companies both in Japan and America.

Last March, the pandemic halted the 2020 tennis season in its tracks, along with Osaka’s training schedule. The downtime allowed Osaka to raise her voice beyond that of a shy underdog who unseated a tennis legend.

“I think I confuse people because some people label me, and they expect me to stick to that label. Since I represent Japan, some people just expect me to be quiet and maybe only speak about Japanese topics,” Osaka told Vogue while gracing their cover in January.

“I consider myself Japanese-Haitian-American. I always grew up with a little bit more Japanese heritage and culture, but I’m Black, and I live in America, and I personally didn’t think it was too far-fetched when I started talking about things that were happening here. There are things going on here that really scare me.”

She credits the pandemic for forcing her to look at things happening in her home in the U.S., when normally she would be too busy travelling for tennis. She has remained outspoken in efforts for racial justice since, both in attending protests locally and using her worldwide tennis platform.

In the 2020 U.S. Open, Osaka wore masks printed with the names of Black victims of racial violence.

“I was just thinking that I had this opportunity to raise awareness,” she said.

“Tennis is watched all around the world, so people who might not know these names can google them and learn their stories. That was a big motivator for me, and I think it helped me win the tournament.”

Williams and Osaka recently faced each other in an exhibition match in Adelaide in preparation for the Australian Open, where Willams won 6-2, 2-6, 10-7 in a super tiebreak victory. Fans across social media loved seeing the friendly interactions between the two stars though, as the two spent time mingling after the match.

“Even after all she has achieved, I can’t imagine Naomi Osaka is used to these moments with her idol. Nice to see,” tweeted tennis writer Tumaini Carayol.

Williams looks to become the world’s oldest grand slam singles winner at next week’s tournament, which would eclipse Margaret Court’s record of 24 titles.

Meanwhile, Osaka will enter the tournament seeking to add a second Australian Open and fourth major title to her trophy case. When asked in the days leading up to the tournament how it felt to be “seen as the face of women’s tennis these days,” Osaka answered in her hallmark modest fashion.

“There’s so many interesting new people. I think I’m one of the new people,” said Osaka. “As long as Serena’s here, I think she’s the face of women’s tennis.”

The Australian Open Grand Slam tournament airs on television on America’s East coast at 7 p.m. on Sunday (11 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 8 local time) through Feb. 21. Players had to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival to Australia due to coronavirus restrictions. Unlike the most recent U.S. Open, fans will be allowed to attend matches in a limited capacity.