From a distance, Mari Osaka could be mistaken for her younger sister, Naomi, the world’s top-ranked tennis player. Although Naomi is taller, they bear a strong resemblance, down to the fluffy ponytail, mild-mannered ways and whisper of a voice.
In fact, a few of the Miami Open fans who jammed into the stands at Court 6 on a sun-splashed Thursday afternoon thought they were watching Naomi and yelled “C’mon Naomi!”, when in fact it was her 334th-ranked older sister.
It isn’t often the Japanese-Haitian sisters get to play in the same event since Naomi made her meteoric rise to No. 1, but Mari was granted a wild card into the main draw – her first time in a WTA singles main draw. Equally “super excited” and “super nervous,” the elder Osaka lost her opening match 6-2, 6-4 to American 16-year-old wild card Whitney Osuigwe.
Naomi, defending champion of the Australian Open and U.S. Open, plays her first match at noon Friday on Stadium Court against qualifier Yanina Wickmayer of Belgium.
“It was my first time playing at a tournament like this, so having a lot of people watching and cheering...the atmosphere, even just walking around the halls here, it’s just completely different,” said Mari Osaka, who is 22 and a year older than her sister. “But it was fun. It would have been even funner if I had won.”
Unlike Naomi, who has become a global superstar, beaten Serena Williams twice, and earned $10.8 million, big sister Mari’s career earnings total $58,496 and she has never won a WTA main draw singles match. She is more accustomed to the lower-tier ITF Circuit, where she plays in front of smaller audiences in places like Midland, Mich., Florence, S.C., Stockton, Calif., and Bruanschweig, Germany.
On Thursday, a crowd of 21,825 roamed the grounds at Hard Rock Stadium, the highest-attended session in the tournament’s 30-year history. The previous record of 18,910 was set in 2007.
Although her career has not gone progressed as quickly as her sister’s and she has been slowed by a nagging shoulder injury in recent months, Mari delights in her baby sister’s success.
“The one word that comes to my mind is, like, “amazing,” Mari said of Naomi. “She’s doing so amazing. Like, it’s almost our dreams coming true that we have been working for our whole life. I’m really proud of her.”
But when she was asked whether her sister’s shoes are big to fill or whether she keeps their journeys separate, Mari broke down into tears.
“My own journey is separate, but of course I tend to compare a little bit, so it’s frustrating,” she said, her voice beginning to crack. “But, you know, not much I can do about that.”
She then wiped tears from her cheeks and took a few moments away from the microphone to compose herself.
It can’t be easy. Like Venus and Serena Williams, the Osaka sisters grew up battling each other on tennis courts all over South Florida. The Osakas’ Japanese mother, Tamaki, and their Haitian father, Leonard Maxime Francois, met and fell in love in Sapporo, Japan, in the early 1990s when Francois was a visiting college student from New York University.
They moved to Long Island, N.Y., and then to South Florida, when Francois, inspired by the Williams family, dreamed of turning his daughters into tennis stars.
Until their mid-teens, Mari was the dominant sibling.
“Up until I was 15, she was 6-0ing me, like, ridiculous!” Naomi said on Wednesday. “I don’t know what happened. Something finally clicked in my head. But for sure she was beating me. In the win-loss category, she’s still up by a million.”
Mari smiled upon hearing that.
“Sometimes I think (Naomi) was throwing the matches on purpose just so that we could finish practice quicker,” Mari said. “So, the moment she started trying, I was getting pissed off. I was, like, `Come on, do you want to get through this?’ Because we’d spend, like, hours on the court. I mean, it was frustrating, but what are you going to do? Just keep playing. Plus, it wasn’t like she was beating me every single time. It was just more back and forth.”
This week, Naomi joked that her sister (whom she called “the nicer” of the two siblings) “was making newbie mistakes” such as arriving at the tournament site at 11 a.m. on a rainy Tuesday when her match wasn’t scheduled until late afternoon.
“I was like, `What are you doing?’ Naomi said, giggling. “Stuff like that I’ve got to talk to her about.”
Despite the loss, Mari said she takes positives from the Miami Open experience.
“I played this match with no pain, which I haven’t done in such a long time. It feels really good, like I can keep moving forward from here.”
In other matches Thursday, Venus Williams, at 38 the oldest woman in the draw, beat qualifier Dalila Jakupovic 7-5, 6-3. Wild card Coco Gauff of Delray Beach, at 15 the youngest woman in the draw, advanced with a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 win over fellow American Catherine McNally.
Williams gave the new tournament venue a positive review. “I think everyone has been curious about it, how it looks. And your fans facilities are really nice, and the stadium is quite large. I think everyone is pretty pleased.”
Bianca Andreescu, the 18-year-old Canadian surprise winner of Indian Wells, rallied to beat Irina Camelia Begu 4-6, 7-6 (7-2), 6-2. Third-seeded Petra Kvitova, American Taylor Townsend and Belinda Bencic also moved on.
Winners on the men’s side included Leonardo Mayer, Robin Haase, Jeremy Chardy, and Maximo Gonzalez.
Friday’s headliners include Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, defending champions Sloane Stephens and John Isner, Venus Williams, Dominic Thiem and Milos Raonic.