Naomi Osaka – the talented introvert who makes a point of getting people talking

Naomi Osaka has pulled out of the French Open (PA Archive)
23:02pm, Mon 31 May 2021
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A self-confessed introvert, Naomi Osaka’s on-court confidence appears to deteriorate dramatically the moment she steps off it.

A series of stunning performances over recent years have catapulted her to four Grand Slam titles, status as the highest-paid female athlete on the planet, as well as spells as the world’s number one player.

Yet, without a racket in hand, the shy and quirky 23-year-old prefers to remain out of the limelight.

Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted

That stance has been epitomised by the current episode leading to her shock withdrawal from the ongoing French Open.

Having suffered bouts of depression dating back to her first slam title in 2018, Osaka attempted to take control of her battle with mental health at Roland Garros by boycotting media duties.

“Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety” she explained.

“Though the tennis press has always been kind to me, I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.”

The resulting furore – which included a fine of 15,000 US dollars (approximately £10,000) and a potential ban from future tournaments should she not reconsider – compelled her to pull out and the long-term repercussions remain to be seen.

What cannot be speculated upon is Osaka’s talent for the sport.

Her power, understandably, grabs attention but her poise at the biggest moments is also extremely impressive, in addition to her unrelenting desire to find a way to win.

She was hailed as the natural successor to Serena Williams following triumphs at the 2018 US Open and 2019 Australian Open and has since underlined her credentials by winning the last two slams on offer, also in New York and Melbourne respectively.

It is Williams to whom Osaka seems inextricably linked.

The young Japanese star grew up idolising the American, they have striking similarities in their games and the US Open final they shared will never be forgotten.

Osaka lifted the trophy to a chorus of boos on that landmark occasion less than three years ago after her high-profile opponent was handed a game penalty.

She has endured mental health struggles since the uncomfortable experience, also revealing that talking to the media triggered anxiety.

Osaka lifted her first grand slam to a chorus of boos after a controversial US Open final against Serena Williams (PA Wire)

Born in Osaka to Haitian father Leonard Francois and mother Tamaki Osaka, she was only a year old when Williams won her first slam title in New York in 1999.

Osaka’s family later moved to the Big Apple, where she attended the US Open as a fan hoping to catch a glimpse of her hero, and then Fort Lauderdale in Florida.

Francois had been inspired to teach tennis to his daughters – Osaka’s oldersister, Mari, is also a professional, although as yet without anything like thesuccess of her sibling – after seeing the Williams sisters at the 1999 FrenchOpen.

The current world number two has previously confessed that at difficult times in matches she asks herself, ‘What would Serena do?’.

Williams, a 23-time grand slam winner, would no doubt approve of her fellow professional’s efforts in the fight against social injustice.

Reluctant to speak in front of journalists, Osaka has sufficiently found her voice to help spearhead anti-racism campaigning.

She has been a vocal advocate for Black Lives Matter, inspiring a pause in play at the Western & Southern Open last year and subsequently wearing facemasks at Flushing Meadows bearing the names of black victims of brutality and violence.

Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy killed by a policeman while playing with a toy gun in 2014, was the name she kept for her victorious final performance against Victoria Azarenka, while Osaka’s boyfriend, rapper Cordae, sat in the stands with a T-shirt bearing the words ‘Defund the police’.

Asked at the presentation ceremony what message she had hoped to send, Osaka replied sharply: “Well what was the message that you got? I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”

Osaka is clearly more comfortable sparking conversations than leading them.

In voluntarily exiting the present tournament, she almost apologetically insisted she “never wanted to be be a distraction”.

It is already too far late for that as the commotion over press conferences and interviews has become the biggest talking point at Roland Garros

Osaka is now preparing for some time away from the court and seems steadfast in her determination to be judged on actions rather than words.

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