Opinion: Naomi Osaka nearing icon status, and it’s not just because of her tennis

Had Naomi Osaka spent her time during the pandemic filling her social media feeds with videos of pounding tennis balls and pumping weights, nobody would have given it a second thought. 

Osaka, after all, is the highest-paid female athlete in the world. More than a great tennis player, she’s a global brand — probably even bigger in Asia, where she was born, than in the country where she grew up.

When she won her first Grand Slam at age 20 and then backed it up with another right away, she admitted that the instant fame and attention made her uncomfortable. The natural instinct was to retreat. And like so many tennis prodigies before her, Osaka could have built a huge fan base and an even bigger bank account by doing nothing more than hitting forehands and backhands.

It’s no surprise those gifts have brought her to another U.S. Open final on Saturday against Victoria Azarenka. Playing the best tennis of anyone in this tournament, Osaka is favored to win her third Grand Slam and poised to start chasing down some of the all-time greats. 

But somewhere between her surprise U.S. Open title in 2018 and now, Osaka, the young woman born to Japanese and Haitian parents who was raised in South Florida, has become more interesting than Osaka the tennis player. In a sport that does not produce very many transcendent, cross-cultural superstars, she is on the verge of becoming an icon. 

Which brings us back to the evolution of Osaka that we saw play out in real time during her break from the tour. On May 25, she tweeted pictures from her closet that could have doubled as a Nike ad. The next day, she tweeted: “I CANT FIND MY GLASSES WITHOUT MY GLASSES!!!” Before that, there were lots of pictures by the swimming pool. 

But on May 27, two days after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis during an arrest while begging police officer Derek Chauvin to remove his knee from Floyd’s neck, things took a different turn.  

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Naomi Osaka brought seven masks to the U.S. Open, each with the name of a victim of racial injustice. (Photo: Matthew Stockman, Getty Images)

From that moment on, all of Osaka’s social media posts revolved around racial justice. A few days later, she quietly flew to Minneapolis to take part in protests. On Juneteenth, she posted a photo of Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth,” a 1961 book about the psychology of colonization in African countries. In July, she authored a piece for Esquire magazine talking about racism not just in the United States where she has spent most of her life but in Japan, the country she represents as a citizen.

“In the past few months, I’ve re-evaluated what’s actually important in my life,” she wrote. “It’s a reset that perhaps I greatly needed. I asked myself, ‘If I couldn’t play tennis, what could I be doing to make a difference?’ I decided it was time to speak up. So what I will say here, I never would have imagined writing two years ago, when I won the US Open and my life changed overnight.”

Though white America has come a long way in understanding why Black athletes are compelled to protest social injustice and police violence, Osaka assumed a not-small amount of risk by leaning all the way into these issues.

You’re talking about somebody who, according to Forbes, made $34 million last year in endorsements, significantly more than either Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova ever did when they topped that list over the last decade.

Naomi Osaka is following in the footsteps of Billie Jean King and other tennis players who continue to fight for equality and justice. (Photo: Danielle Parhizkaran, USA TODAY Sports)

But much of Osaka’s strength as an endorser undeniably comes from the Japanese market, which does not claim very many global sports stars. In addition to the Nike gear she is paid handsomely to wear, Osaka’s uniform prominently features patches from Nissin Foods and All Nippon Airways, two major Japanese brands. 

Just as a point of comparison, Kei Nishikori — a Japanese tennis player who has regularly been in the men’s top-10 but never won a Grand Slam — made $31 million in endorsements last year according to Forbes, more than Neymar, Rory McIlroy and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

In other words, from purely a corporate standpoint, Osaka has far more to worry about than how her public profile resonates with an American audience. There’s a lot of upside for Osaka to put the focus on issues like racism that are viewed differently in other countries, other cultures. But there’s also potential downside, too. At one point, she even jokingly posted the nervous Kermit the Frog meme in a June 8 tweet, writing above it: “Live view of my agent whenever I open Twitter.”

Everybody better get used to it. Because one of the unique things about tennis, particularly on the women’s side, is that the legends tend to stay in our lives for a long time.

Tennis legend Billie Jean King uses her fame to champion women on and off the court, and fight for equal pay, LGBTQ rights, and racial justice.

USA TODAY

Americans have been watching Chris Evert on television, whether as a player or a commentator, since 1973. Billie Jean King remains a force on issues of equality 45 years after winning her last Wimbledon. Williams won her first Grand Slam the same year President Clinton was impeached and is still contending for titles. Barring injuries or a decision to take her life in a different direction, it feels like Osaka is going to be one of the most relevant figures in sports for many, many years.

And over the last few months, we’ve seen her grow up right before our eyes. Unlike the young lady who sheepishly and almost apologetically accepted the U.S. Open trophy two years ago, we’ve seen her become comfortable expressing what identity means to her and what issues she cares about. As she arrived at this year’s Open with seven masks to wear, each of them adorned with the name of a different Black American killed by racial profiling and unnecessary police violence, she just so happened to be playing the best tennis of her life.

Now she’s in another final, perhaps her most significant yet given the context of this summer and her arrival as an unapologetic voice for change. The convergence of all those factors has put Osaka on the verge of a level of superstardom few tennis players achieve. She seems ready to take on the challenge. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

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