Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka is the 2018 US Open champion, the first Japanese to win a grand slam tennis championship, let alone make it to the semi-finals of one.

And as most sports fans know today, her victory was most bittersweet. Osaka defeated her idol, Serena Williams, who had a monumental emotional meltdown in the second set of the Open finals. Engaging in a battle of wills, Williams and umpire, Carlos Ramos, turned the last 30 minutes of the match into an emotionally charged, penalty-filled drama which helped determine the final outcome.

What should have been the happiest moment in the 20-year-old’s career was instead rendered unexpectedly painful.

Naomi Osaka was crowned champion, after a display of dominant tennis, but thanks to the rain of boos from the New York crowd who sided with Williams, Osaka could only weep for playing a role in the humiliation of her hero. She initially believed the crowd was booing her, which is heartbreaking to think about.

In answer to the question about her dream to play in a finals match against Serena, she replied “I’m going to sort of differ from your question. I’m sorry. I know everyone was cheering for her. I’m sorry it had to end like this.” As soon as Osaka said that, you could hear the crowd groaning in regret for their boos. As the groans turned to cheers, she did something so very Japanese, simply thanking the audience for being there. “I just want to say thank you for watching the match. Thank you.”

With those last two words, she nodded her head in a bow, like so many Japanese do unconsciously every day.

Naomi Osaka, the daughter of a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, does not at first glance appear Japanese. And it is not uncommon for children of mixed race to stick out uncomfortably in Japanese society, sometimes bullied for appearing different.

But in that moment, I suspect many Japanese who watched Osaka’s body language closely, recognized her as their own. Yomiuri, which owns the largest newspaper in Japan, called Osaka a “new heroine that Japan is proud of.”

Terebi Asahi Live_Naomi Osaka
Terebi Asahi Live, September 13, 2018

In the days after Osaka’s US Open championship victory, the Japanese media was thoroughly won over. On the September 13 broadcast of Terebi Asahi Live, the commentators highlighted the reasons why the Japanese of all ages have fallen in love with Naomi Osaka. Among several reasons, they cited qualities that exemplify Japanese values:

  • The gap between her cool on the court and her awkwardness in front of the press
  • Her caring comments about other players
  • Her shy smile and even her broken Japanese.

Awkward Cool: In her appearance on the highly popular talk show Ellen, she answered the first question about becoming the US Open champion by saying, “I’m sorry but it’s so weird…like you’re a real person?” To which, Ellen Degeneres replied that she was indeed real. As many have noted, she puts on no airs in front of the cameras. What you see is what you get.

Caring Comments: In the awards ceremony of the US Open, Osaka was asked what it felt to be the first Japanese, male or female, to win a grand slam final. Again, deflecting the focus off her, she replied that was her dream to play Serena Williams in a US Open Finals. “I’m really glad I was able to do that,” she said looking at Williams. “I am really grateful I was able to play with you. Thank you.”

And again, the head bow to Serena, something so out of place in New York, and so overtly Japanese in its humility.

Naomi Osaka has charmed the world. And Japan has quite unexpectedly made her their own. Even the Japanese government, one run by the fairly conservative Liberal Democratic Party, has slowly eased into the idea that Japan needs to allow greater inflows of foreign immigrants. The Foreign Minister, Taro Kono, explained on September 13 to the World Economic Forum that Japan has to accept more foreigners due to its aging population and low birth rate, citing Naomi Osaka as a symbol for how Japan can benefit from increased immigration.

It’s good to have diversity,” Kono said. “It’s good to have an open policy.”

Before the US Open, there was some hope that a Japanese would win gold at the 2020 Olympics in front of the home crowd. As Naomi Osaka is the newly crowned Queen of tennis, that hope has blossomed into full-blown expectation.

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Jana Novotna wins Wimbledon Women Singles Championship in 1998She was on the verge of winning the 1993 Wimbledon Championship, up 6-7, 6-1, 4-1, and 40-30 in the third set, a point away from taking a commanding 5-1 lead over Steffi Graf. Jana Novotna then double faulted, and proceeded to melt down.

Ten minutes later, Graf had won the final set 7-6 and taken her fifth Wimbledon championship. Novotna, who let glory slip through her fingers, could do nothing but cry on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent, as the tennis world cried with her.

The tennis world cried again, as three-time Olympic medalist Jana Novotna died on November 19, 2017. She was only 49, succumbing to cancer.

Novotna’s career was hardly shattered by her dramatic loss in London in 1993. Encouraged by the Duchess of Kent, she came back five years later to win the 1998 Wimbledon singles championship. But when I review her grand slam tennis record, I was amazed at how many championships she won in doubles and mixed doubles: 4 doubles and mixed doubles championships at the Australian Open, 5 doubles championships at the French Open, 5 doubles and mixed doubles championships at Wimbledon, and 4 doubles and mixed doubles championships at the US Open.

In other words, Novotna had a total of 17 grand clam championships, although 16 were in doubles. I thought, wow, that’s a lot of grand slam championships….until I saw the list of tennis players who had more grand slam titles. There were 20 people ahead of her.

What I found interesting is that of the 20 people ahead of her, most had decent balance between singles and doubles championships – people like Margaret Court, the all team leader at 64, with 24 singles championships and 40 doubles championships, or Serena Williams with 23 singles and 16 doubles championships. There were a few like Graf and Chris Evert who basically focused on winning singles championships. But the majority on the list piled up their championships in the doubles arena, like Novotna.

Is there a difference in mentality and skill sets for singles players vs doubles players? According to this blog post from the website Talk Tennis at Tennis Warehouse, there are significant differences between the two.

Successful singles players have powerful first and second serves, love to pound it back and forth from the baseline, and aim for the corners, while successful doubles players are cat-like in front of the net, are skilled at drop shots and lobs, and tend to hit to the middle of the court. The post goes on to describe what it’s like when a person who has a singles mentality plays doubles, and vica versa. Here are a few:

Singles guy playing doubles (with 3 doubles players), singles guy…

  • after his partner serves, he begins immediately retreating to the baseline (where he’s comfy)
  • after his partner returns serve, he begins immediately retreating to the baseline (where he’s comfy)
  • serves rocket first (and second) serves (rather than slowing the speed and getting the first serve in)
  • make no consideration to serve down the middle to capitalize on his netman’s poaching prowess
  • way too many low-percentage shots (when other available for typical doubles player)
  • poor volley skills make him the target of every possible ball until he gets to the baseline

Doubles guy playing singles player, doubles guy…

  • serves second serves like doubles (slower) only to find singles man has a field day crushing them for winners
  • used to covering half of 36′ doubles = 18′ but now has to cover 27′
  • that extra 9′ makes the “alleys” twice as big and he gets passed a ton by the singles player smoking them DTL or CC
  • baseline exchanges are short because singles guy is looping/spinning the ball like mad with nice pace and Doubles guy is not used to that
  • doubles guy can’t seem to get to the net because singles guy’s pinning ’em to the baseline — so who’s gonna win?
Sam Querrey at Wimbledon
Sam Querrey at Wimbledon

When I played a lot of tennis in the 1970s and early 1980s, Americans like Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe were giants who battled the likes of Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, and Ivan Lendl. Connors and McEnroe passed the American torch to Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, who went on to greater championship glory. But those days of American dominance are long gone.

As this interesting article from Five Thirty Eight points out, an American named Sam Querrey became the first American since Andy Roddick in 2009 to reach a semi-final of a Grand Slam tournament, by beating Andy Murray at Wimbledon on July 13, 2017. (Querrey lost to Marin Cilic, thus continuing men’s futility in Grand Slams.)

Five Thirty Eight is a blog written by data analytic junkies, and they provide powerful data on the virtual disappearance of the American male in the semifinals of any of the four grand slam tournaments: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and The US Open. In fact, the last American to win a grand slam was Andre Agassi, at the 2003 Australian Open.

That is an amazing drought for the world’s biggest economy that happens to have a huge tennis fandom.

Five Thirty Eight provides the rationale:

The globalization of tennis has slowed down America year after year. In the early Open era, beginning in 1968, into the 1970s and ’80s, America led the world in tennis training, practice and equipment. American men won loads of Grand Slam titles from 1968 through the 1990s, when John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Agassi, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier ruled. From 1990 to 1999, American men reached the semifinals or better 62 times at Grand Slams. All the while, though, foreign tennis training improved. By the time 2000 came along, diversity had climbed. American men reached the semifinals or better only 26 times from 2000 to 2009.

OK. That kind of makes sense.

Except that the globalization argument should include data on women. Since the year 2000, there have been only 3 years when an American woman did not win a grand slam finals: 2004, 2006 and 2011. Every other year, an American has won: Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, and two others who happen to have the same last names: Williams.

Serena and Venus Williams have captured 29 of the past 70 grand slams since the year 2000, or 41% of them. If we add Jennifer Capriati’s three grand slam championships and one of Davenport’s, the total increases to 33 of 70 to nearly 47%, or nearly half of all grand slam championships in the 21st century.

It doesn’t appear globalization has slowed down American women.

Venus Williams makes it to her ninth Wimbledon Finals in 2017
Venus Williams makes it to her ninth Wimbledon Finals in 2017
andre-agassi-and-steffi-graf
Andre Agassi and Steffi Graff

Quarterback Tom Brady and Super Model Gisele Bundchen are. So are Tennis great Serena Williams and Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian. Then there is golf icon Tiger Woods and ski champion Lindsey Vonn, as well as Olympian greats Nadia Comaneci and Bart Connor. These are Sports’ Power Couples, a duo of envious capabilities and qualities that will cause entire rooms to turn heads.

But perhaps the greatest sports power couple of all time is the love match of tennis legends, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf.

Andre Agassi, the charismatic, enigmatic tennis tour de force of the 1990s and oughts is one of 8 men to have a career grand slam, having won eight grand slam titles over the course of the four major tournaments: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. To win the biggest tournaments on three different surfaces – hard court, grass and clay – is a testament to versatility and greatness. Additionally, Agassi won gold in men’s singles tennis at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, thus making him the first and only man to earn the informal title of Career Golden Slam, until Rafael Nadal accomplished that with combined Olympic victory in 2008, and US Open victory in 2010.

Steffi Graf tops the accomplishments of her husband. The German superstar of the 1980s and 1990s is arguably the greatest female tennis player of all time. Over her career, Graf has won 22 Grand Slam singles titles (tied with Serena Williams), and in one incredible year, she pulled off a purist’s dream. In 1988, Graf won the Australian, the French, Wimbledon and the US Open, capping it off by winning the gold medal in women’s singles at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

A Golden Slam. Until Steffi Graf, no one, man or woman, had ever done that.

steffi-graf-and-andre-agassi-family

Bruce and Caitlyn_cover to cover

NINE – Meet Caitlyn Jenner: Jenner reveals in July that she would no longer be known as Bruce Jenner, sparking a dialogue about what it means to be transgender. The 1976 gold medal-winning pentathlon men’s champion’s cover story on Vanity Fair, and follow-up television interviews helped broaden the world view on people who identify themselves as transgender.

Day Thirteen: The Championships - Wimbledon 2015
LONDON, ENGLAND – JULY 12: Serena Williams of the United States and Novak Djokovic of Serbia dance on stage at the Champions Dinner at the Guild Hall on day thirteen of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships on July 12, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Thomas Lovelock – AELTC Pool/Getty Images)

EIGHT – Olympians Serena Williams and Novak Djokavic Win 3/4 of their Grand Slams: Williams won the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon in 2015. She is a four-time gold medalist, winning gold in doubles in 2000, 2008 and 2012, as well as the singles championship in 2012. Djokavic won the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon in 2015. Djokavic now has a total 10 Grand Slams, and took the bronze medal in singles play in Beijing in 2008.

fc barcelona uefa.jpg

SEVEN – Barcelona FC Wins the Treble: In the 2014–2015 season, Barcelona win La Liga, Copa del Rey and UEFA Champions League titles, becoming the first European team to have won the treble twice. Olympians on Barcelona FC include Javier Mascherano (gold for Argentina in 2004 and 2008), Lionel Messi (gold for Argentina in 2008), Neymar (silver for Brazil in 2012), Luis Suarez (competed for Uruguay in 2012)

See this link for 13 through 15, and 10 through 12.