Naomi Osaka is a very different kind of tennis star, writes Caitlin Thompson, as she builds on the tremendous work of Serena Williams to nudge tennis into the future. Osaka, now the world’s highest paid sportswoman, has used her voice to find a footing in the world of art, culture and now, fashion.
Naomi Osaka had a breakthrough week – both in the places the tennis world understands, but more importantly, in the places it doesn’t. Anyone calling her second-round loss Karolina Muchova at the Madrid Open an upset doesn’t know much about Osaka’s history with clay.
It’s by far her worst surface and when last year’s topsy turvy scheduling meant French tennis officials moved Roland Garros to the autumn, she skipped the event entirely after winning the US Open.
She hadn’t played a pro match on the surface in two years, so when she told press that her battle with clay-court savant and currently streaking all-courter Muchova actually exceeded her own expectations, it’s easy to see why.
While she was busy learning about her least favourite surface in the run-up to next month’s French Open, she also found time to launch a swimwear line with Instagram cult favorites Frankie’s Bikinis, which makes inclusivity and ethical sourcing a main thrust of its mission, expand her Play Academy – designed to prioritise getting racquets into the hands of girls – from Tokyo to two new locations in Los Angeles and Haiti, as well as make her debut as one of the four co-chairs of the 2021 Met Gala along with Amanda Gorman, Billie Eilish and Timothee Chalamet. Yes, that was all this week.
Since announcing her arrival onto the major stage with a blazing run to the finals of the 2016 Pan Pacific Open, Osaka has been a very different kind of tennis star.
Even years before her first slam title, which memorably came against an overmatched (and overwhelmed) Serena Williams at the 2018 US Open, her heavy artillery on the court came paired with a pensive, off-beat and refreshingly candid personality off of it.
Most tennis pundits didn’t know quite what to make of her – biracial, trinational with a big game and a voice she was just learning how to use.
And now five years on, she’s learned how to use it. Not only did she assume the title of world’s highest paid female athlete ever, knocking the robust earnings from Williams off the top spot, it was the way she did it that puts her Met Gala participation in context.
Osaka has approached every aspect of her career, from a protest of police brutality that stopped a tournament in its tracks out of respect and brought Black Lives Matter to a country eager to learn, to the way she uses her brand relationships to highlight her values that has signalled tennis’ departure from the corporate shill era of the ‘90s and ‘00s and into a very modern form in which it finds itself now.
Her duties as a Met Gala co-chair are not just symbolic: she’ll join forces with Gorman, Eilish and Chamalet in planning the event, and co-hosts are typically tapped to perform in some capacity.
While Osaka’s main goal at the moment seems to be meeting fellow multi-hyphenate Rihanna (which seems likely in the more intimate affair, scheduled for September as a more-scaled down gala from years past), it’s safe to expect that she will be bring her ideas about making a more just world and amplifying underrepresented voices to the role.
Osaka has found footing outside the sport in the world of art, culture and now, fashion and that those worlds have responded with open arms.
In joining these other young stars from the world of activism, music and entertainment, she’s representing a new generation of relevant tennis stars to the world of style, and more importantly, the larger world of culture.
She’s used her platform consistently and insistently to nudge both a tennis world still sometimes stuck in the past and is in the process of wrangling it into the future, and she’s done it while making herself open and receptive to the larger world that the Met Gala embodies.
While Williams transcended the sport of tennis, becoming a household name as the winningest (at least by grand slam count) celebrity the game has produced, Osaka is bringing the sport with her into other realms, building off of Williams’ tremendous work but making it her own.