September 13, 2018

The Global Embrace of Naomi Osaka

There was obviously a lot of ugliness that came out of Saturday's women's final at the U.S. Open.

Accusations of sexism in the sport brought to the forefront in a most spectacular, if not badly-timed, fashion. The issue especially poignant since it was highlighted not even two weeks earlier when Alize Cornet was penalized for changing her shirt on court, something men are able to do freely.

The actions of a chair umpire who -- maybe not ultimately, but at least at a key moment during the match -- seemed to have his finger on the scale of the championship. Whether he actually favored Naomi Osaka over Serena Williams or was just being a stickler for the rules notwithstanding, the outcome may have been dictated more by Carlos Ramos than by the players themselves, and that's never good.

And then there's the cartoon. Horribly offensive or over-policed satire? I think the answer is pretty obvious, but this isn't necessarily the time to discuss it.

Like many, I was afraid that all of that would overshadow what was, by any measure, a stellar performance from the 20-year-old Osaka under especially difficult circumstances.

First off, she was facing her idol -- a woman 16 years her senior, going after a record-tying 24th Major title. Someone she not only looked up to, but practically couldn't believe truly existed. In the lead up to the match, Osaka's fangirl-ness was on full display. But her nerves never got the best of her.

On top of that, Osaka endured an outsized level of theatrics and handled them with the maturity and grace of someone much more experienced, both on the court and to the spotlight. Remember the last time Serena had a meltdown so dramatic -- and faced such a match-affecting penalty -- it was against Kim Clijsters, who already had a Grand Slam title to her name and knew how to keep her cool under pressure. For the much more junior Osaka to close out the match is not something to be overlooked.

And let's be honest -- Osaka simply dominated that match. There is no asterisk beside her name in the record books. She blew through the first set in a half an hour and responded to losing serve in the second by breaking right back. She out-aced her opponent (out-returned her too), played a cleaner game, and withstood a crowd that was clearly hoping they'd see Serena make history. It would have been a shame if that athleticism was lost amid the furor.

But more of a concern for me was what it would do to Osaka -- seemingly shy and nervous in media appearances before the final, she covered her face with her visor during the trophy presentation to hide her tears. She even apologized to the fans in her acceptance speech for not giving them what they wanted. She admitted days later that she thought all the booing was directed at her -- just another thing she fought through that day.

Would the weight of all that get to her? Would talk that Serena was "robbed" -- certainly of a game, possibly of a point, perhaps of the title -- affect her momentum or her still-nascent career? There have, after all, been no shortage of phenoms who peaked early and all but vanished in short order.

I worried.

But in fact the thing that might eventually help Osaka most is what I initially felt might make her most vulnerable -- the fact that she doesn't seek the limelight and that she actually thrives being the underdog.

In the days since the final, her tears and guilt have given way to smiles and confidence, as supporters came out from all corners. Serena certainly did her part, putting her arm around her as they were awarded their prize money and urging the crowd to behave. Other players tweeted how she didn't deserve such a caustic environment when she should have been celebrating her first Grand Slam. Her star has also risen over worlds far outside of tennis -- she snapped a pic with LeBron James and Channing Tatum, made the media rounds, and got a shout-out from her celebrity crush.

Naomi Osaka, under the radar even to rabid tennis fans just a month ago, is now a household name for people who don't follow a lick of the sport -- another thing that can't be said about all Grand Slam winners. (Do you think most people are familiar with, or know how to pronounce, Marin Cilic?)

And that's worth something -- reportedly $10 million for Adidas, which would make her the athletic brand's highest-paid female endorser and the second most valuable female athlete in any sport. She's also signed on as an ambassador for Nissan, and it's likely more deals are coming.

Of course all the attention and sponsorships will eventually fade and so, truthfully, might her luster. She won't win every time she steps on court, and she may never hoist another Major trophy.

Will that be a letdown? Maybe. Will it be a meltdown?

My money says no.