Tennis

How a trip to Haiti had a profound effect on world No. 1 tennis player Naomi Osaka

World No. 1 tennis player Naomi Osaka, a Boca Raton resident of Japanese-Haitian heritage, was given a hero’s welcome during a November 2018 visit to Haiti.
World No. 1 tennis player Naomi Osaka, a Boca Raton resident of Japanese-Haitian heritage, was given a hero’s welcome during a November 2018 visit to Haiti. Naomi Osaka Instagram

When a courtside reporter at the Australian Open last year asked Naomi Osaka how proud she felt representing her American and Japanese cultures, Osaka quickly and politely set the record straight: “Of course, I’m very honored to be playing for Japan. But my Dad’s side is Haitian, so represent.”

She then held up a peace sign, and smiled, a gesture that was felt all the way in her father’s hometown of Jacmel, Haiti, where she spent five unforgettable, life-changing days in November.

Osaka, the world’s top-ranked tennis player, was born in Japan, has a Japanese mother and surname and is a superstar in Japan, where she has lucrative endorsement deals with Nissin noodles, Nissan Motor, Yonex racket company, Citizen watches and Shiseido cosmetics. More than 50 Japanese reporters covered her win at the Australian Open in January, and many of them will be at Hard Rock Stadium over the next two weeks chronicling Osaka’s every move at the Miami Open.

The 21-year-old Boca Raton resident is fiercely proud of her Japanese background, although she was raised in New York and South Florida since age 3 and is more comfortable speaking English than Japanese. What is sometimes overlooked — much to her dismay — is that Osaka is equally appreciative of her Haitian heritage, especially after her recent trip to Haiti, her second visit to the island.

Osaka was treated like a head of state. She was received by President Jovenel Moise and Prime Minister Jean-Henry Ceant. A welcome parade was attended by hundreds of people, many of them playing drums and horns. She was anointed a goodwill ambassador for the Promotion of Haitian Sport and given the key to Jacmel. She was honored with a special musical and dance performance at a local theater.

A ceremony was held at Mupanah National Museum in Port-au-Prince, where she donated the sneakers and tennis racket that she used to defeat her idol Serena Williams in the controversial, drama-filled 2018 U.S. Open final that ended with Osaka in tears, her face buried in a towel, and then apologizing for beating Williams.

Her favorite part of the Haiti trip was a visit to the IOA Center, an elementary school in the outskirts of Jacmel that was built 20 years ago by her parents, Leonard Maxime Francois and Tamaki Osaka, who despite disapproving stares met and fell in love in Sapporo, Japan, in the early 1990s while Francois was a visiting college student from New York University.

The Osaka family continues to provide funding, uniforms and supplies for the school, which unveiled a new wing during the tennis star’s visit.

Osaka was so moved she announced this week that endorsement fees she received for a new Barbie doll in her likeness will be donated to the school. The money will be used for further expansion, and, Osaka hopes, for tennis courts to introduce Haitian children to the sport she loves so much.

Bob Durent, the former Haitian ambassador to Japan and a friend of the Osaka family, had received strict orders from Osaka’s agent, Stuart Duguid of IMG, not to overschedule the tennis star during the Haiti trip. She was coming off an injury and needed to rest. Nothing before 9 a.m. and nothing past 7 p.m. were the instructions.

“I have to apologize because we kept her on her toes every day and night,” Durent said. “We, as Haitians, were so appreciative that she found the time to spend five days with us, and we wanted to introduce her to every aspect of her father’s culture.”

Osaka didn’t mind the hectic schedule. Quite the contrary. She felt very much at home, having spent her early childhood with her paternal grandparents and other Haitian relatives in Long Island, New York, hearing Creole, eating spicy legumes (vegetable stew) and fried plantains.

“It was really one of the warmest welcomes I’ve ever had, if not the warmest,” Osaka said by phone last week of her trip to Haiti. “For me it meant a lot because it’s my Dad’s motherland, and I’ve been to Japan so many times but I haven’t really been to Haiti as much, so just to see everyone being so kind and welcoming was really incredible, and humbling.”

She said seeing the Haitian way of life changed her approach to life, and tennis.

“Even from the first time I went there, there’s this newfound appreciation for everything,” Osaka said. “You take water for granted, hot water, things people there don’t have access to. Just the little things that you don’t really appreciate. It was really eye-opening and helped me with my mentality when I’m playing.

“It helped me be grateful that I’m even on the court, that I’m not injured, having the opportunity to play the matches. There’s a new appreciation for every point I get to play. Little things I used to complain about definitely are not a big deal to me anymore. Even if I lose, I realize this isn’t the worst thing that could happen to me.”

She even finds joy in media interviews, where her honest, unfiltered, quirky answers endear her to reporters and fans who are accustomed to more guarded athletes who offer clichés and predictable quotes.

“Naomi comes across as very authentic, which is quite refreshing for a lot of people in sports marketing and especially in tennis,” Duguid said. “It translates well to fans and companies. She is multinational, and in the world we live in right now without the boundaries we used to have, that makes her very interesting, as well.”

ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe says Osaka is a bona fide star on and off the court, and predicts she will be a force for years to come.

“She has that X factor,” McEnroe said. “She’s genuine, and very refreshing. She has fun on social media, without overdoing it. She gives hilarious speeches and press conferences. She’s fun to watch on the court, has a presence and amazing ball-striking ability that reminds me of Andre Agassi, who with the exact same swing could all of a sudden generate 30 percent more pace out of nowhere. Naomi has that timing and ball striking in addition to her great movement and athleticism. I love watching her play, with her hair flying all over the place. I think she’s a legit No. 1 and she’s here to stay.”

Osaka’s bio on her Instagram account, which has 900,000 followers, features Haitian and Japanese flags. She has become a role model for multiracial people all over the world, especially in Japan, one of the most homogenous places in the world with 98 percent of the population ethnic Japanese.

When her parents began dating, they were shunned by family and members of their community, many of whom came around in recent years. Being multiracial, known as “hafu” (half) in Japan, can be a difficult stigma to overcome. Osaka is helping change those cultural perceptions and prejudices. Her face and presence across Japan will be substantial during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“I am having an impact I didn’t even know I had,” she said. “I get letters from people thanking me. It’s very touching. I always felt like I was different, didn’t look like other people, but it was never my goal to blend in. I never felt I had to fit into a box. I made my own box and was just happy being me.”

Osaka was born on October 16, 1997, and her journey to the peak of the tennis world began a few years later, when her father watched the 1999 French Open on television and saw sisters Venus and Serena Williams, who were teenagers at the time.

He did some research, and found out that the Williams sisters’ father, Richard, who had no background in tennis, learned the sport on his own and was grooming his daughters to be champions. Francois, who had dabbled in tennis, figured maybe he could do the same for Naomi and her older sister, Mari, who were 18 months apart.

The family moved to New York when Naomi was 3, and lived with Francois’ family. The sisters were given tennis rackets, and Francois began teaching them on public courts. Before long, the girls had become big fans of the Williams sisters. Like Richard Williams, Francois chose to keep his daughters out of the intense, sometimes ruthless, world of junior tennis, and primarily had the sisters compete against each other.

In 2006, Osaka’s parents decided to move the family to Pembroke Pines because South Florida, with warm weather and countless tennis academies, is a breeding ground for young players. The sisters were home-schooled and spent most of the daylight hours on the tennis court. Mari (who still plays on second-tier pro circuits) was the better player at the time, but Naomi got taller and stronger over the next few years.

Naomi turned pro in 2012, at age 14. McEnroe, who was in charge of the U.S. Tennis Association development program at the time, remembers watching Osaka train at the Evert Academy in Boca Raton. He says the USTA reached out to her and offered coaches and trainers, as they did with other young players such as Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens and CoCo Vandeweghe. But the Japanese federation offered a more personalized deal, and her parents felt she would be better off.

“I’d love to see the American flag next to her name, but she has a Japanese parent and her family made the decision to go with Japan, which financially was a good decision,” McEnroe said.

Osaka climbed the rankings quickly: By the end of 2014, she was No. 250 in the world. In 2016, Osaka reached No. 48 and was named 2016 WTA Newcomer of the Year. During the course of the 2018 season, she skyrocketed from No. 68 to No. 5 with a trophy at Indian Wells, California, a win over Serena Williams at the Miami Open in March, and then her first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open.

Her Miami Open began with a stunning 6-3, 6-2 first-round ouster of Serena Williams, who had won 23 Grand Slam titles, eight Miami Opens, and was coming back from a 13-month maternity leave.

Four years after nervously approaching Williams in a Stanford locker room to ask for a selfie, Osaka dominated her idol from start to finish with power-packed serves, heavy groundstrokes and composure that belied her age and experience.

Osaka admitted at the time that she was nervous.

“She’s the main reason why I started playing tennis, and I have seen her on TV so many times and I have always been cheering for her, so for me to play against her and just sort of trying to detach myself a little bit from thinking that I’m playing against her and just try to think I’m playing against just a regular opponent was a little bit hard for me,” Osaka said.

Her goal, she said, was to impress Williams, “not lose 6-0, 6-0” and to force her to yell “C’mon!” at least once during the match.

“I just wanted her to, in the end, like, after the match, just know who I am and stuff.”

Williams certainly did. It was Williams’ earliest exit at the Key Biscayne tournament. She had never lost before the Round of 16.

Immediately after the match, Williams bolted from the grounds without doing a mandatory news conference. A few hours later, she issued a one-paragraph statement saying “Naomi played a great match” and “I look forward to continuing my return by progressing every day.”

Williams and Osaka would meet again in a 2018 U.S. Open final that won’t soon be forgotten. Osaka won 6-2, 6-4 after Williams was penalized a game for berating the chair umpire during a long, heated argument as fans booed and play was delayed. During the trophy ceremony, still teary-eyed, Osaka said to the crowd: “I’m sorry. I know everyone was cheering for [Williams]. I’m sorry it had to end like this.”

Williams, also in tears, put her arm around Osaka and urged the crowd to “make this the best moment we can. We’re going to get through this. So, congratulations, Naomi. No more booing.”

McEnroe, who was in the stadium that day, said: “The way Naomi handled the situation at the U.S. Open was extremely admirable. Here she wins her first major, and it was brutal. But she didn’t win that match because Serena lost it and got a game penalty. She was thoroughly outplaying Serena for a set and a half. She’s got the game and firepower to deal with Serena. Obviously, the pressure will ramp up on her in the next year or so, but it appears to me she’s got the game and persona to handle it.”

Osaka insists she is not much different at No. 1 than she was at No. 68.

“Maybe I’m more confident in myself now,” she said. “And definitely having more fun.”

Miami Herald sportswriter Michelle Kaufman has covered 14 Olympics, six World Cups, Wimbledon, U.S. Open, NCAA Basketball Tournaments, NBA Playoffs, and has been the University of Miami basketball beat writer for 20 years. She was born in Frederick, Md., and grew up in Miami.


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