BY: ISABELLA VON HABSBURG
Any professional athlete can tell you that the road to greatness is no picnic. Naomi Osaka’s journey to excellence has been a long one, and definitely not without its hardships. From the start of her rise to fame, she has worked day in and day out to prove herself, but never letting herself stray from the traits that make her the unique athlete she is. Her incredible passion and determination have led her to where she is today - one of the highest-paid athletes in the world. Below are some of her career highlights:
No. 1 ranked by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA)
1st Asian player to hold the top rank in singles
4x Grand Slam singles champion
Ranked 8th among all-athlete endorsement incomes in 2020
No. 2 Highest-Paid Tennis Player overall and the No. 1 Female
Although she is one of the youngest professional female athletes on the tennis circuit, Osaka has never let her age or gender get in the way of her making her voice heard - but it hasn’t always been an easy road. Her shy personality has made it difficult for her to deal with the social aspects of her sport - such as press conferences. Despite her reserved mannerisms, Osaka has made a point to use her position as a professional athlete for the greater good - specifically regarding the rampant racism this past year.
When it comes to the press, however, Osaka feels differently about utilizing her voice. Having never been formally media-trained, Naomi has always been her true self when it comes to answering questions from the press. While it is not the press that she has issues with, it is the format of press conferences held after matches. Osaka stated “ I believe that we can make it better, more interesting, and more enjoyable for each side. Less subject vs. object; more peer to peer.”
While most of her fans have seemed open to a potential format change, not everyone has been so accepting, and she has dealt with insurmountable public scrutiny since then. Osaka did not let the differing opinions get in her way, though, until this year. Before the 2021 French Open, she released a statement that she would not be participating in the required post-match press conferences - this was met with contempt and anger from journalists and the tournament organizers.
The French Open organizers immediately threatened to slap her with a $15,000 fine for athletes who do not comply with press requirements. Despite this threat, following her first match, Osaka stood her ground and did not participate in the press conference - leading the French Open to follow through with fining her $15,000.
Because of the continued scrutiny, Osaka ultimately chose to do what was best for herself and withdrew entirely from the tournament. She publicly admitted to her battle with depression and anxiety, which began after her first big win in 2018. By being honest about her struggles, she has created an open and transparent conversation surrounding athletes’ lack of support and resources and mental health.
A powerful and public decision such as this one comes with controversial opinions. While most have showered Osaka with love and support, some industry members did not take too kindly to her decision - Piers Morgan even labeled her as “world sport’s most petulant little madam.”
I often wonder how the public would have reacted if she pulled a Marshawn Lynch. Would she get the same support that he did - or would she have been dismissed as an emotional young woman?
Image via Bleacher Report
Naomi Osaka has built a name for herself both on and off the court. And, while she currently sits atop the list of top-paid athletes, she has never compromised her beliefs and background, especially when it comes to the brands that she aligns herself with.
Her current sponsors include brands like Nike, Beats, and Hyperice, and with each partnership, she makes it a goal to utilize each sponsorship in the most impactful way possible.
A recent accomplishment of Osaka’s is founding her own skincare company - Kinlo. By launching this company, Naomi hopes to make products that don’t change her skin color while at the same time working to erase the myth that dark skin doesn’t need sun protection.
More of her impressive partnerships are with Nike and Play Academy, a program launched in Japan to promote exercise and teamwork in young girls. This program has now expanded into the U.S. and Haiti too!!
You’ve all seen her sporting her trademark headphones before a match. Now, not only are they a sponsor of hers, but the headphones also allow her to block out any noises that might distract her while also calming her social anxiety in the public eye. She has always been and continues to be transparent in her choices. Her sponsors are not just of monetary value to her, and she finds each of them equally important to pursue her dreams and goals of personal growth.
By shining a light on the lack of mental health resources provided for athletes, Naomi Osaka has set off a chain reaction of other athletes choosing their health over their sport - and she is in great company with athletes like Simone Biles. Biles also recently decided to take a step back from the sport she loves so much during her time at the Tokyo Olympics. Both of these athletes are examples of how much pressure athletes deal with daily - not to mention the expectations for them to surpass their already incredible achievements each time they compete.
And I wish I didn’t have to, but I have some sad news to end with. After her loss at last weekend’s U.S. Open, Naomi Osaka made a public statement that she will be taking time away from tennis - the environment around her has changed. It is not conducive to her mental health or her work as a professional tennis player. Osaka explained that she no longer feels joy from winning a match; instead, she feels only relief.
As a competitive equestrian for many years of my life, I fully understand the hardship of no longer feeling joy or happiness after winning a competition, instead of just thanking God that I didn’t disappoint anyone along the way. I can’t even imagine how Naomi has struggled with the hardships that she has had to endure this past year, especially, and I commend her for taking a step back from the sport for herself and not for anyone else. I stand with Naomi Osaka, and I do not doubt that she will continue to advocate for women and mental health support in sports even during her time away from the court.
Isabella von Habsburg is the founder of Isa’s Sports Insights @InsightsIsa and can be found on Twitter @ivh_92496