Naomi Osaka’s Breakthrough Game

New York Times, By Brook Larmer, Aug. 23, 2018

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.

To ready the rest of the article (click here).

Categories Haiti News | Tags: | Posted on August 25, 2018

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