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Naomi Osaka’s meteoric rise to the top earns her a prestigious title, both for herself and the country she plays for.
When Naomi Osaka won her first US Open in 2018 against her childhood idol Serena Williams, the world sat up and took notice.
Osaka was a powerful and dynamic presence on the court, but she struck chords with viewers for all manner of reasons even after the game was over. Despite living in the United States, Osaka had the choice of playing on behalf of Haiti or Japan due to her father and mother’s respective nationalities, and she chose Japan; despite her incredible skill on the court, she was shy and quiet in interviews, especially in Japanese; she stayed calm and resolute in the wake of criticism about her attitude, her dress, her own identity.
Two years on, Osaka is practically the face of modern tennis, all on her own. She’s also proven herself to be a powerful brand ambassador, a passionate human rights activist, and the star of her own upcoming intergalactic manga. In this turbulent, intense year Osaka has stood firm and triumphed over her second US Open and worked hard not only to promote herself but to inspire and uplift others.
Her hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Associated Press announced Osaka as their Female Athlete of the Year alongside LeBron James, their Male Athlete of the Year. Previous winners of the Athlete of the Year Award include Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, Simone Biles, and Michael Phelps, but Osaka is the first Japanese athlete to ever hold the title.
As with all news about Osaka relating to her identity, there has been a degree of backlash from conservative netizens; especially considering the overwhelming presence of American athletes in the line-up of previous award-winners, some have dismissed or diminished the importance of her title for Japan as a whole. For those with Japanese citizenship who are routinely labeled as “not Japanese enough”, though, this could be a vital step towards validating and legitimizing their own place in Japanese society.
No matter what, we’re watching with bated breath to see what Naomi Osaka has in store for us in 2021 as she continues to play tennis on behalf of Japan, and are glad to see her kindness and sportsmanship both on and off the court. Congratulations!