Haitian-Japanese Tennis Star Naomi Osaka’s Breakthrough Game

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A report by Brook Larmer for the New York Times.

The temperature in Boca Raton had soared above 90 degrees, but on a side court at the Evert Tennis Academy, Naomi Osaka was just digging into one of her last training sessions before the summer hardcourt season. Wearing leggings and a tank top — her magnificent mane of frizzy blond-tinted hair emerging from the back of her Adidas cap — the 20-year-old smacked crisp topspin groundstrokes with her coach, Sascha Bajin, a German of Serb descent best known for working as Serena Williams’s hitting partner for eight years. On the sideline, Osaka’s Japanese mother, Tamaki, sat in the shade in a denim jumpsuit and sunglasses, her daughter’s miniature Australian shepherd sitting by her feet. Pacing on the grass alongside the court was her Haitian-born father, Leonard Francois, a taciturn man in a baseball cap who trained her from age 3 and still tracks nearly every shot she hits.

Some version of this simple scene — dutiful parents, a gifted child, the metronomic thump of a ball — plays out every day at tennis courts and sports fields across the world. Only in this case, the parents’ unlikely union has led to the emergence of one of the most intriguing young stars in sports today: an athlete who has grown up in one place (the United States), represents another (Japan) and, for some, symbolizes something as large as the world’s multicultural future. In playing under the flag of an island nation noted for its racial homogeneity, Osaka challenges assumptions about whether and under what circumstances a biracial person might be accepted as truly Japanese. For her part, Osaka, shy and quirky, with a penchant for unexpected candor, seems focused solely on becoming the next Serena. Her ambition, she once told a reporter, was “to be the very best, like no one ever was.” After a beat, realizing that her interlocutor was not tuned to her frequency, she explained: “I’m sorry; that’s the Pokémon theme song. But, yeah, to be the very best, and go as far as I can go.”

On this searing afternoon, Osaka was amping up the velocity of her shots. “Ninety seconds!” shouted her conditioning coach, Abdul Sillah, looking at his stopwatch. Osaka and Bajin were halfway through their first three-minute drill, a baseline rally that lasts about 10 times longer than an average exchange in a match. The drill is meant to make the legs and lungs burn without affecting the pace and placement of the athlete’s groundstrokes. It also happens to goad Osaka’s competitive pride. After about 80 shots, by my count, neither she nor Bajin had missed. As the clock slogged on — “Two minutes!” Sillah said, then “Two and a half minutes!” — it was clear that each was trying to make the other crack. Osaka let out a shriek as she scrambled to return one of his deep shots down the line. As the last seconds ticked away, Osaka crushed a forehand crosscourt for a winner. “I hit with Serena almost every day for eight years, and Naomi’s weapons are just as big,” Bajin says. “She’s not afraid of center stage, either, and that’s why I believe she has greatness within her.”

As the U.S. Open begins this week, Osaka may be a premature pick to lift this year’s trophy, but the prospect also wouldn’t be entirely outlandish. At 20, she is the youngest woman in the world’s Top 20 — and Japan’s highest-ranked female player in more than a decade. Serena Williams declared two years ago that Osaka was “very dangerous.” So it wasn’t a complete surprise when she put together a spectacular run in March at Indian Wells, in California, demolishing three current or former world No.1s on the way to her first W.T.A. title. Those upsets catapulted her up the rankings, from No. 68 at the end of 2017 to 17 by early August. “Ever since I can remember, I played better against bigger players on bigger courts,” she told me, her high, soft voice a contrast to the ferocity she displays on court. Tsuyoshi Yoshitani, a sports reporter with Kyodo News, says: “Naomi is like no Japanese player ever before. I think she will be the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam.”


Yet Osaka’s rise is accompanied by a curious tension: She is half-Japanese, half-Haitian, representing a country whose obsession with racial purity has shaped her own family’s history. Though born in Japan, Osaka has lived in the United States since she was 3. She is not fully fluent in Japanese. Yet nearly a decade ago, her father decided that his two daughters would represent Japan, not America. It was a prescient move. Osaka’s success — and her tweeted affection for Japanese manga and movies — has endeared her to Japanese fans hungry for a female tennis star.

What makes Osaka so complicated for Japan is precisely what makes her so appealing to many fans and corporate brands around the world. The young woman with the fearsome forehand and 120-mile-per-hour serve may not simply be the future of women’s tennis. “When I look 15 years into the future, I see Naomi having a great tennis career, perhaps even with Grand Slam titles,” Stuart Duguid, her agent at I.M.G., says. “But I also hope that she’s changed cultural perceptions of multiracial people in Japan. I hope she’s opened the door for other people to follow, not just in tennis or sports, but for all of society. She can be an ambassador for change.”

In mid-June, Osaka’s mother, Tamaki, posted a tweet that was different from all the tennis, food and puppy updates that had filled her page before. This tweet featured a collage of three photos: one of Francois, shortly after the two met, wearing a black-and-white track suit; one of a younger Tamaki, smiling in a leather jacket; and one of their two toddler girls, with cherub-cheeked Naomi in front, two braids falling across her face. Above the nostalgic photos, Tamaki wrote a message that seemed at odds with the happy images: “was ‘disgrace’ to the family, had been in the desert&jungles for decades, I’m still surviving.” It was followed by two emojis — a flexed arm and a red heart — and a hashtag: #HappyLovingDay.

June 12, the date the tweet was posted, is also known as Loving Day. It commemorates the 1967 Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which nullified antimiscegenation laws in 16 states (including Florida), the last places in America where people could go to jail for marrying across racial lines. The ruling had no impact on Tamaki, who was born a few years later in Japan. But her sense of solidarity came from an experience so profound that her Twitter handle has long been the date of her wedding and the word “liberty.”

Japan’s long history of guarding against foreigners dates back to the 1630s, when the Tokugawa shogunate cut off the archipelago from the rest the world. The sense of separatism cultivated over the centuries remains strong today, especially in places like Nemuro, the coastal town where Tamaki grew up. In a country with one of the least ethnically diverse populations in the world, Nemuro — on the eastern tip of Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island — is a bastion of homogeneity. Tamaki’s world would open up, however, after her mother sent her to a high school in Sapporo, Hokkaido’s capital.

Among the early wave of foreigners coming to Sapporo around 1990, Tamaki met a handsome college student from New York. Leonard Maxime Francois was Haitian by birth and one of only a handful of black men in all of Hokkaido. The two started dating, keeping their relationship secret from her parents for several years. Tamaki says that when she was in her early 20s, her father wanted to talk about omiai, the matchmaking process that would lead to her arranged marriage. The truth then spilled out: Tamaki was already seeing someone — a foreigner who also happened to be black. Her father erupted in outrage, excoriating her for bringing disgrace on the family.

The couple moved south to Osaka, where both Tamaki and Francois, whose Japanese was improving, found work. For more than a decade, Tamaki would have virtually no contact with her family. (Tamaki’s father could not be reached for comment.)

Two daughters, Mari and Naomi, came in quick succession, born 18 months apart in Osaka. One evening in 1999, when the girls were just toddlers, Francois became transfixed by a broadcast of the French Open featuring the American prodigies Venus and Serena Williams, then 18 and 17, who teamed up to win the doubles title that year. Francois played little tennis. But Richard Williams, the sisters’ father and coach, had played none at all. And Williams had created a plan to turn his daughters into champions, teaching them how to serve big and hit hard from every corner of the court. “The blueprint was already there,” Francois told me. “I just had to follow it.”

Leonard Francois, far left, and Tamaki Osaka, second from right, with their daughters Mari, left, and Naomi, right, and friends in Osaka, Japan, in 1999.

Naomi Osaka has few memories of her early years in Japan. The family left for the United States when she was 3, moving in with her Haitian grandparents on Long Island. There, with access to a gym and free public courts, Francois was able to initiate his plan in earnest. Girded with instructional books and DVDs, he made the girls hit hundreds, then thousands, of balls per day. “I don’t remember liking to hit the ball,” Naomi told me. “The main thing was that I wanted to beat my sister.” When they played sets, Naomi lost every time, usually 6-0. “For her, it wasn’t a competition, but for me, every day was a competition,” she says. “Every day I’d say, ‘I’m going to beat you tomorrow.’ ” It took 12 years before that watershed moment finally came. (Mari, whose early career has been slowed by injury, is now ranked No. 350 in the world.)

For Osaka, the five years on Long Island evoke cultural memories too. “I grew up surrounded by both Haitian and Japanese culture,” she says. Her father’s parents, who spoke no English, filled the air with Haitian Creole and the aroma of spicy Haitian stews. Her mother spoke to her and her sister in Japanese, preparing seaweed-and-rice-ball snacks for them at school and dressing them in kimonos for international day.

Their Asian side won out in another essential way. Instead of taking their father’s last name, the girls used their mother’s name — a Japanese surname that, improbably, is the same as the city of their birth. It was mostly a practical matter when they lived in Japan, helpful for enrolling in schools and renting apartments. But as the girls grew up in America, their name would become a constant reminder of the homeland that they would one day represent.


The family moved to southern Florida in 2006 to focus on tennis full time. As other children went off on the school bus, the sisters trained most of the day on the Pembroke Pines public courts and were home-schooled at night. The girls grew in strength and talent, and in time, Tamaki decided they should meet their Japanese family, from whom she had been largely estranged for nearly 15 years. And so, when Naomi was about 11, she and her sister visited their grandparents in Japan. It wasn’t as joyful a homecoming as Tamaki might have hoped. Her parents took an interest in the girls, she says, but ridiculed their regime of home schooling and tennis training. Tennis was a hobby, they grumbled, not a profession.

Back in Florida, the girls skipped many of the usual circuit of junior tournaments and, eventually, started competing against older players on the pro satellite tours, just as the Williams sisters had done. With a growth spurt in her early teens, Naomi soon towered over Mari. Video clips of the girls’ matches and training began circulating among coaches and agents, but neither sister had an impressive junior ranking or much tournament experience. The United States Tennis Association showed little interest in helping them develop. Rather than vie for support with hundreds of other talented young players in America, Francois made a pivotal decision: His daughters, from age 13, would play for Japan, the nation they left behind nearly a decade earlier.

“My dad thought that since I grew up around my mom and I have a lot of Japanese relatives … I don’t know. …” says Osaka, letting the sentence drift off. Despite growing up in United States, with all the cultural references of a typical American youth, she told me: “I don’t necessarily feel like I’m American. I wouldn’t know what that feels like.” Her sister speaks almost fluent Japanese, but Osaka’s grasp on the language is more tenuous. “I don’t know if you guys know this, but I can understand most Japanese, and I speak when I want to,” she tweeted earlier this year, adding: “That applies to my family and friends.” She says she is too shy — and too much of a perfectionist — to speak the language publicly. Her reluctance can create awkward moments at news conferences, with Japanese reporters asking questions that she answers in English.

The decision to play for Japan has had major repercussions in Osaka’s life, from the way she is perceived in Japan and the United States to the size of the endorsement contracts she can now command as a top Japanese athlete ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Though some in the tennis world wondered whether the decision was influenced by commercial prospects — the Japanese star Kei Nishikori’s massive endorsements were no secret — the family insists that the girls were too young and unproven for that to be a factor. The Japan Tennis Association, facing a drought of top female players, offered them an opportunity. But for Tamaki and Francois, who spent many years in Japan himself, it was natural for the girls to play in the country where they were born, even if the parent’s own memories of the place were tinged with anger and regret.

The bearded man on stilts bellowed into a microphone, exhorting the crowd to chant her name: “Na-omi! Na-omi!” The hype machine was revving up for a World Team Tennis match, a nonranking format designed to turn the sport into popcorn-eating entertainment. In the stands of the Washington arena on this July evening, cheerleaders in slit white miniskirts and tight red tops swung their pompoms while young men paraded around twirling enormous cutout posters of Osaka’s likeness. Above the tennis court — a Mondrian-like matrix of green, purple, blue and red boxes — four giant screens broadcast images of its headline act on the court below.

For the women’s singles match, one first-to-five-game set, Osaka was pitted against Taylor Townsend, an American ranked 44 places below her. It was expected to be a comfortable win for Osaka and her team, the Washington Kastles, but the circus atmosphere — and the pressure to win every game for a team that had brought her in just for this event, to help propel a playoff run — seemed to throw her off. Her first three service returns careered out of the court. As the errors piled up, a sore right calf got worse. At one point, the Kastles’ announcer pumped up the crowd. “Refuse to lose!” he yelled. “Get ’em up, get ’em up, get ’em UP!” Osaka still lost in a tiebreaker, dumping the final ball in the net and trudging off the court.

Two hours later, Osaka sat courtside, stone-faced, as her Kastles teammates pushed the overall match into a deciding doubles tiebreaker. Mari had been waiting to go with her to the Beyoncé and Jay Z concert in Maryland that night. The sisters had been planning this outing for months, but the W.T.T. match was blowing right through the opening act. Earlier this year, when Osaka thought she might miss Beyoncé’s tour, she tweeted: “Tell me why Beyoncé decides to have a concert in Miami at the same time as the US Open. I’m legit gonna cry.”

As the match dragged on, Osaka huddled with her personal team to discuss the situation. Her trainer warned against staying out late and dancing on her sore leg just two days before the summer’s first hardcourt tournament began. Her father agreed. Osaka and her sister, conferring quietly in Japanese so the others wouldn’t overhear, made the final decision together. After so many years of training and studying together, with few other friends or distractions around, Mari and Naomi have developed an indissoluble bond.

Early on, Mari was the focus of attention. A childhood picture shows her hitting balls with her father while Naomi, her hair in curlers, wanders the court with a broom. Mari had phenomenal drive and balance — she even mastered the unicycle — and could hit the ball on the rise at an early age. Naomi showed little promise at first and was sometimes relegated to a side court with her mother while Leonard trained Mari. In a way, this shielded her from the pressure that piled up on Mari as their parents learned by trial and error how to coax the most out of their daughters.

Today, as Naomi arrives at top tournaments and Grand Slams with a sizable entourage, Mari usually travels alone to low-level satellite events, often in small towns and cities. Even so, the sisters constantly conspire to hang out. Last year, the two played doubles together in a Tokyo tournament. “Here comes trouble, and make it double,” Naomi tweeted. In July, they joined the mobs at the Overwatch esports final at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, screaming every time a competitor was (virtually) shot. And they scored tickets for a Drake concert at Madison Square Garden just days before the start of the U.S. Open.

On this night in Washington, as the W.T.T. carnival ended, Osaka slipped into the locker room and emerged moments later wearing a chocolate-colored pantsuit, her hair unleashed Beyoncé-esque. The Kastles’ owner was holding a team meeting on court, but the two sisters strode toward the exit without looking back.

Osaka serving against Serena Williams during the Miami Open on March 21 in Key Biscayne, Fla.

All the tennis fans could see at first were Osaka’s bright pink visor and her bundle of hair, bobbing up and down rhythmically. It was her first match of the summer hardcourt season, and Osaka was arriving at the Washington Citi Open’s grandstand court with her head down, blasting Kendrick Lamar on her headphones. The afternoon crowd — with a contingent of Japanese fans and journalists — applauded her arrival, but Osaka couldn’t hear them over Lamar’s lyrics. Music is part of the ritual that Osaka has used to block out distractions, gird for battle and confer good fortune. “I’m superstitious,” she told me. “If I win, I keep listening to the same song. I only change it when I lose.” Osaka hoped to listen to Lamar for many days to come, perhaps all the way to the summer’s culminating event, the U.S. Open.

Pulling off her headphones, Osaka gave a bow to the umpire and to her first-round opponent, the Croatian-American Bernarda Pera. The polite Japanese gesture, a regular part of Osaka’s routine, has a gentility that seems at odds with the power she flexes on court and the stern expression on her face. “I think everybody who sees me would think that I’m really scary or something,” she told me. “But I’m not!” Osaka’s right calf was now wrapped in white tape, and she worried about her explosiveness off that side. As she pulled a racket from her bag, shouts of encouragement rang out from her biggest cheering section: Team Naomi, led by Bajin, her upbeat coach. Osaka glanced over at her crew, and her face transformed into a shy smile. “She plays better when she’s happy,” Bajin says. “If she’s only 60 percent happy on a given day, we’ve got to supply the other 40 percent.”


If there’s any pattern to Osaka’s career thus far, it is that she tends to perform well on the big stage — and get distracted on the smaller ones. Last year, Osaka dismantled the defending champion Angelique Kerber in the first round of the U.S. Open 6-3, 6-1 and went on to the third round. This year, just three days after claiming the title in Indian Wells, she beat Serena Williams in the first round of the Miami Open. “I kind of wanted to impress her,” she said later. “I just wanted to make her say, ‘Come on!’ one time, and I think she did, so I’m really happy about that.” Their post-match encounter at the net was one of the few conversations the two had ever had. Once before, Osaka had chanced upon Serena in the locker room but was too awe-struck to say hello. “I had my headphones in anyway,” she told me, “so I just pretended I couldn’t see or hear anything.”

The first round in Washington presented a different challenge. Pera, ranked No. 95, is a solid player who could test whether Osaka’s focus on consistency and foot speed was working — and whether her calf injury would hinder her, as an abdominal strain had before Wimbledon. At 2-1 in the first set, Osaka winced as she stretched wide for a shot, reaching down to rub her calf. She recovered and, with a series of bullet forehands and serves, finished off the set 6-2 in a half-hour. But then she lost her mojo. Pera broke her serve twice with a series of deft drop shots. Osaka laughed sarcastically at her own missed shots, but she fought back each time, ultimately tying up the set, 6-6. At 5-4 in the tiebreaker, she cracked a backhand winner down the line, clenching her first with a “Come on!” that would have made Serena proud. A point later, the match was over.

Team Naomi put a positive spin on the match. “It was better for her to struggle a little bit,” Bajin said, “because it showed she can come through adversity.” Even so, Osaka didn’t look her dominant self. In the second round, against the Polish counterpuncher Magda Linette, she forced a third set by reeling off a series of high-risk winners. During the break, she massaged her ears and did some Zen deep-breathing exercises. It didn’t help: Her patience seeped away, and so did the deciding set, 6-3. In the next two U.S. Open warm-up tournaments, in Montreal and Cincinnati earlier this month, Osaka lost in the first round each time, leaving observers to wonder how she might rebound on the big stage of the U.S. Open.

After a couple weeks of Twitter silence, Osaka reappeared on Aug. 16 with a heartfelt tweet. “So the last couple of weeks have been really rough for me,” she wrote. “I had a lot of pressure entering the hardcourt swing because I felt a lot of expectation on me from Indian Wells and I didn’t feel like the underdog anymore.” But now she said she had recovered “that fun feeling playing tennis.” She signed off: “See you in NY.”

In Japan, a mixed-race person is known as hafu (from the English word “half”). In the 1990s and later, when most hafu were of Asian and Caucasian parents, they gained visibility in the modeling and entertainment industries. But the word took a different turn in 2015, when a half-Japanese, half-African-American woman named Ariana Miyamoto won the Miss Universe Japan pageant. Miyamoto used her status to raise awareness for her discriminated segment of the population. Many young Japanese applauded the step forward, but some online commentators could not accept that a hafu could be seen as the face of Japanese beauty. One wrote: “Her face is foreign no matter how you look at it!”

The realm of sports has been more welcoming. Unlike Miyamoto, Osaka has been embraced by Japanese media, companies and fans hungering for a female tennis star. Nissin, one of the world’s largest instant-noodle companies, has already signed her to a lucrative deal, as has Wowow, the tennis channel that broadcasts her matches in Japan. The Osaka camp plans to announce a large new endorsement deal before the U.S. Open, and other Japanese multinationals are circling. Osaka’s biggest payday may come at the end of the year, when her Adidas shoe-and-apparel contract expires — just in time for the prelude to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

If Osaka played under the American flag, it’s very unlikely that these opportunities would exist. Japanese companies would have no reason to court her and U.S. brands would have other higher-ranked young guns to consider, like Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens. But as Japan’s top-ranked player, Osaka has the full attention of the country’s top brands, whose sponsorship fees can run far higher than those of their Western counterparts. There’s a reason Nishikori, despite never having won a Grand Slam title, surpassed bigger stars like Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in endorsement income over the past year, with $33 million, according to Forbes. Only Roger Federer earned more. “Kei’s been a trailblazer for Naomi,” Duguid, her agent from I.M.G., says. “He’s opened doors for tennis in Japan and across Asia.” But with Osaka’s combination of youth, authenticity and cultural diversity, he says, “she might have more global appeal.”

Osaka has already shifted attitudes in one small town in Hokkaido. In 2014, when Osaka, then 16, scored a stunning upset over the former U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur, her grandfather noticed the jubilant coverage in the Japanese media. His disparagement of Osaka’s tennis dreams has gradually shifted into support. He has sent Osaka text messages, phone greetings and earrings (because she told him all the top players are pierced). In April, after her breakthrough in Indian Wells, he even spoke to reporters in Nemuro to about her Japanese roots. “I heard people on Twitter saying, ‘Does she really have relatives in Japan?’ ” he said, “so I thought I should come out.” Hanging from Osaka’s tennis bag is her grandfather’s latest gift: an omamori, a small silk pouch on a string, blessed at a temple and designed to bring good luck.

Osaka may be the highest-profile hafu at the Tokyo Olympics, but others will very likely be there, too. A top sprinter, Abdul Hakim Sani Brown of the University of Florida, is the son of a Japanese mother and a Ghanaian father. The father of Rui Hachimura, a 6-foot-8 basketball star at Gonzaga University, is from Benin, while the tennis doubles specialist Ben McLachlan’s father is from New Zealand. “Ten to 20 years ago, we didn’t see many mixed-race athletes,” says Yoshitani of Kyodo News. “But I think Japan is changing slowly. It’s more international now. The older generation doesn’t change its habits or mentality. But the young generation has a different outlook.”

Still, Osaka stands apart from other Japanese players. The only two Japanese female players to reach the Top 10 — Ai Sugiyama (No. 8 in 2004) and Kimiko Date (No. 4 in 1995) — maximized the potential of their smaller stature, relying less on power than on defensive skills, sharp volleys and footwork, and mental toughness. At the Federation Cup competition in April, Osaka’s game and powerful 5-foot-11 frame stood in stark contrast to the other Japanese singles player, Kurumi Nara, who is just 5-foot-1. “Everything about Naomi breaks the mold,” says Kenshi Fukuhara, a producer with Wowow. “Physically, she’s so much more powerful than other Japanese players. She looks more like Serena, but she’s very Japanese inside.”

Nao Hibino, a 23-year-old Japanese player who has been ranked as high as 56, appreciates all the attention Osaka has brought to women’s tennis in Japan. But she still finds it hard to conceptualize her as a Japanese player. “To be honest, we feel a bit of distance from her because she is so physically different, she grew up in a different place and doesn’t speak as much Japanese,” says Hibino, who first played Osaka when she was an unpolished 16-year-old. “It’s not like Kei, who is a pure Japanese player.” Miyako Kamei, a middle-aged Japanese fan watching Nishikori warm up on a back court at the Citi Open in Washington, said, “We all support Naomi, but Japanese fans tend to like those players who have come up purely on Japanese power.”

Living on the hyphen — balancing Japanese, American and Haitian cultures — is something Osaka has done all her life. And she has become aware that her mixed identity may bring her more fans around the world. “Maybe it’s because they can’t really pinpoint what I am,” she has said, “so it’s like anybody can cheer for me.” In Japan, sports fans already know who Osaka is: She’s the rising star playing for the land of the rising sun. Her Japanese might not be perfect, her appearance not traditional. But the barriers may ultimately be no match for success. “If Naomi wins a Grand Slam, the other things won’t matter as much,” Fukuhara says. “All of Japan would embrace her.”

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