Osaka’s tough core can help her shine under the spotlight at home Olympics

Osaka’s tough core can help her shine under the spotlight at home Olympics

Back in the spring of 2019, Naomi Osaka was coming off consecutive grand slam titles and digesting her newfound presence as a leading name in world sport when the subject shifted to the seemingly imminent 2020 Olympics. In order to represent Japan there, the then-21-year-old Osaka would have to attempt to gain full Japanese citizenship after her 22nd birthday.

The decision, which received prominent attention, was widely framed as a difficult choice between being American or Japanese, speculation that soon reached her in a press conference at the Miami Open.

Despite recent discourse, Osaka rarely exhibits her frustration in front of the media. This time, however, it was clear: “I made comments about it already so if you want to read those comments …” she responded curtly. “I’m kind of over repeating myself all the time, so … I mean, I’m not trying to be rude.”

Her frustration was more than understandable. Considering the way Osaka speaks about her heritage, there has been no choice to make for a long time. She was born in Japan. She is Japanese as well as Haitian. She made the choice to represent Japan when she was 14 and she has never wavered. But throughout her time in the spotlight, whether explicitly or suggestively, her heritage has been routinely questioned.

Despite how easily she represents both her Haitian and Japanese heritage, so often ignorance and confusion has reflected back from all areas. Some American commentators claim she does not represent Haiti enough. After her outspoken support for Black Lives Matter, Osaka received more than a few racist pile-ons on Twitter from some Japanese users who would pointedly refer to her as African American, which she is not.

There was little surprise when Osaka was revealed as the face of an early Tokyo 2020 commercial last February and it is obviously significant. The most prominent Japanese athlete in the world is mixed race and offers significant representation for a growing population of multicultural Japanese people who have been marginalised for a long time. And now she has returned home.

All that alone is a heavy weight for any athlete to bear before their home Olympic Games, but recent events have only accentuated it. Osaka has not competed since the first round of the French Open after her surprise announcement not to conduct press conferences there exploded into the news story of the tournament, leading Osaka to withdraw from the event for mental health reasons.

After her initial silence, Osaka has since said her piece in an essay in Time Magazine. She has now arrived back in Japan where she has been practising at the Olympic venue. Re-entering the tour in her biggest tournament of the year seems like a daunting task but if anyone from the current generation is equipped to deal with this pressure, Osaka on a hard court seems a healthy bet. She has had numerous moments of vulnerability throughout her young career, but at her core she is extremely tough, which has been reflected clearly in the levels of discipline and fortitude exhibited in all of her grand slam title runs.

Osaka has also already mastered the art of dropping in and producing her best tennis even without significant match fitness behind her back. Before the 2021 clay-court season, Osaka had played only five tournaments since the tour restarted last July, picking and choosing her events as if she is already an ageing, part-time player. Despite withdrawing from two of those tournaments, she won two grand slam titles in that irregular run of events, doubling her total major haul to four.

The question though, after essentially missing the last two grand slams, is exactly what frame of mind she is in and how ready she is to put everything on the line again. Those are queries that cannot be answered until she is back on the court in the Ariake Coliseum, furiously striking forehands once more.

As Osaka re-enters the fold in Tokyo, she is certainly not returning to a field bursting at the seams with quality. While Novak Djokovic continues his chase for the golden slam and Ashleigh Barty is keen for her supremacy to endure in Olympic competition, the withdrawals have piled up. In the men’s field, half of the top 10 will be absent while the women’s draw is also missing many big names, with many players prioritising tournaments that offer ranking points and prize money over an Olympic adventure.

There are fair reasons for so many absences. Tennis players have been travelling from bubble to bubble for a year and it is fine that some are unmoved by the prospect of even stricter restrictions in Tokyo. But every withdrawal erodes the importance of tennis at the Olympic Games.

This tournament should be a tipping point for the sport’s relationship with the competition.Unless all of the governing bodies involved are prepared to make it attractive for all, with ranking points and a less congested schedule, it feels like a missed opportunity at best and a pointless endeavour at worst.

There have been some great recent Olympic moments, from Andy Murray and Juan Martín del Potro’s run at Rio 2016, to Murray’s London 2012 win at the All-England Club three weeks after Wimbledon heartbreak. That said, these issues are not specific to Tokyo with many players’ interest in Olympic tennis contingent on location, conditions and convenience. Such attitudes may only grow in the years to come.