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Naomi Osaka And The Battle For Self

Naomi Osaka (Photo Credit: @naomiosaka)

The edge of fame, the boundaries of superstardom, the meaning of wealth and fame, and the reason to be under the arc lights and answer questions all the time — 23-year-old Naomi Osaka seemed to often pause to understand the meaning of it all.

“It’s not something that I can avoid any more,” Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam singles champion from Japan, and the current world No. 2, said in 2019 when asked about her newfound fame. Battling such questions, Osaka, one might imagine, paused again this week  and said ‘no’ French Open officials after a week-long confrontation over whether she should participate in press events. In an Instagram post, Osaka cited mental-health concerns including depression and anxiety. As she walks out of the French Open defiant, in a way defeated by the system but yet a victor, she leaves the tennis world in total disarray.

The basic question here is can a player be forced to act the way someone else expects her to? Outside of the tennis court, can her life be controlled by laws drawn up by unknown people. Is it a superstar’s job to play up her fame? Is the power of the press absolute? In the big world of fame, brands and millions of dollars, should all players play by the rules? In many ways, Osaka stood up for people who are reluctant to be questioned about the formula of their success and the way they lead their lives.

The edge of fame, the boundaries of superstardom, the meaning of wealth and fame, and the reason to be under the arc lights and answer questions all the time — Naomi Osaka seemed to often pause to understand the meaning of it all.

During last year’s US open that she won, each day Osaka wore the mask with names of Black citizens shot by the police in the country. She walked each day into court, the very picture of defiance against racism and power. Here was a star who spoke truth to power. It was clear that Osaka had decided to fight bigger battles and that the tennis court would not limit her. 

Osaka suddenly found herself at the intersection of many things: caught between allegiance to Japan and the US. Her mother was almost thrown out of her small Japanese village for marrying a Black man and now that country was wooing her back. She is a reluctant speaker of Japanese and preferred to answer in English to Japanese reporters though she took questions in Japanese. Inside an almost all white sport, she was wearing the mask for Blacks. Her father belonged to Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, and here she was the richest woman athlete in the world, last year. The rules of fame were set by others. Finally, in Paris, she decided not to play by those rules. She chose to be an imperfect champion and the young woman who makes her own rules. 

Finally, in Paris, she decided not to play by those rules. She chose to be an imperfect champion and the young woman who makes her own rules.

It is not that Osaka always avoided the press. She stuck to the rules till she could take it no longer. This reporter has been at many of her press conferences at the Australian Open when she bantered with the press like a seasoned pro. When Naomi Osaka walked into a press conference there was always a buzz. The same buzz that accompanies tennis champions like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. She always made good copy. Her replies were like darts that hit the right spots.

Once seated, Osaka never presented herself as a conqueror. She smiled, laughed and looked outside to say she was bored. Her mass of hair forming a halo, Osaka seemed to always hope that the next question would be the last and searched the stage of reporters to figure out who it was who dared ask another question. But once the questions started flowing, she took it in her stride, sometimes joking, often sarcastic, sometimes bantering, sometimes audacious.

Once seated, Osaka never presented herself as a conqueror. She smiled, laughed and looked outside to say she was bored. Her replies were like darts that hit the right spots.

In 2019, as Osaka was emerging on top, she took it in, and personal questions also found answers. 

Sample these from official transcripts of Australian Open 2019 presser where I was present, and where she answered questions about her game, her fame, her self-doubts and her inner turmoils.

Q: I don’t know how you are in private with people. In the press, I think you are more open, more comfortable.

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Osaka: Yeah in the press I feel comfortable because I’m being asked questions. But when you have to do small talk, like ‘Hello how are you?’ After that, I don’t know what to do. (Smiling).

Q What do you normally do then?

Osaka: I go, uhm okay, then I walk away. (Laughter). But yeah, I mean like I’m more comfortable talking to people I’ve sort of been put in the position that I have to . It’s not something I can avoid any more. But yeah, next time I walk into the press room, I’m going to be like, ‘What’s up.’ (Laughter).

Q  You’re pretty engaging and funny. Everybody seems to enjoy everything you say. You come up with smart things. Why do you think there’s that disconnect that you feel you don’t know what to say?

Osaka: I don’t want to sound rude to you guys, right? But like when I sit here, it’s like you guys aren’t real people. (Smiling).

Q: What are we?

Osaka: It’s like I don’t know. If I’m talking to someone one-on-one, it just stresses me out because if I tell you a joke, 50/50 chance at least three of you are going to laugh. I don’t know if it’s a pity laugh, but at least it’s a laugh, right? If it’s one-on-one and that person doesn’t laugh, I just want to leave. Yeah, I mean that’s sort of the reason why I don’t come across that way to people.

Q: In the off-season, what were your goals, not just in terms of your game, but mentally grasping everything that happened to you last year (winning the US open)?

Osaka: Yeah, I mean, I’ve thought about it . But at the same time for me one of my biggest goals is to be more mature, like to mature as a person. And I feel in a way, I am, but in other parts, I’m three years old mentally, you know. I feel it’s just levelling that out is one of my biggest goals that I had during the off season. To be honest, I had a notebook. So, every night before bed, I would write jokes so I can present them to you guys.

For a reluctant speaker to the press, such press conferences were not bad at all.

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But Naomi Osaka, the reluctant superstar, has opted out of it all.

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Binoo K. John is a senior journalist based in New Delhi. He has authored the Wettest Place on Earth, the bestselling Entry from Backside Only: Hazaar Fundas of Indian-English, Curry Coast: Travels in Malabar 500 Years after Vasco Da Gama and the novel The Last Song of Savio de Souza.

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