It would be difficult to choose just one career-defining moment in tennis superstar Naomi Osaka’s recent past. There’s the 2018 US Open, where she defeated her childhood idol Serena Williams. She followed up on that emotional win, which she calls “a little bit bittersweet”, with her first win at the Australian Open in 2019.
And after those back-to-back Grand Slams, there was her surprise jump from Adidas to Nike in a groundbreaking $ 10 million deal.
But the events of late summer 2020 can stand out from anything that came before and make an even more lasting impression than Osaka’s no-nonsense blowouts and coveted endorsements. The 23-year-old athlete won another US Open individual championship in September after overtaking Williams to become the highest paid female athlete in the world with a profit of $ 37.4 million.
However, it was their social activism that led them beyond the court into national dialogue. Osaka is used to speaking mostly with her 200 km / h serve and devastating forehand. She has started to overcome what she has termed “crippling shyness” to share her opinion on racial injustice with her 3 million social followers and to publicly support the Black Lives Matter movement.
Courtesy of WTA
She boycotted a game in August in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and joined a number of professional leagues in an unprecedented hiatus. She showed each of her seven US Open games in a bespoke face mask with the name of a black American victim, including Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Tamir Rice.
“I knew I had to take a stand,” says Osaka, whose journey on and off the pitch will be featured in an upcoming Netflix documentary. “For me it wasn’t about tennis.”
Although hailed as the future of the women’s tennis federation and the next generation of marketing magnate, Osaka’s views on systemic racism and police defunding could be viewed as sponsor-unfriendly in certain corporate circles.
“Commercially there is an argument that she risked a lot,” says her agent and manager Stuart Duguid, SVP, IMG Tennis. “But choosing her was easy. She was absolutely categorical and would not change her mind. “
Osaka’s growing list of brand partners, which include Shiseido, Nissan, Citizen Watches, BodyArmor and Hyperice, stood by her side. Mastercard, which has been part of their lineup for about a year, has created a digital video with Osaka and Billie Jean King in which the two champions can “speak authentically from the heart” about how difficult it is to overcome barriers and to address social change urge, says Michael Robichaud, the brand’s SVP for global sponsorship.
“In this world of screaming, Naomi has a low voice,” says Robichaud. “But the way she uses it, it gets incredibly loud.”
During a much-needed post-tournament rest period, Osaka, a multicultural member of Gen Z who was born in Japan and raised primarily in the United States, spoke to Adweek about searching for souls during quarantine, checking out potential sponsors, and weaning off her favorite video games and games possibly preparing for another run at the Australian Open ahead of the Summer Olympics.
Adweek: This spring seems like an introspective time for you. Can you describe how you felt, how you decided to move forward on and off the pitch?
Naomi Osaka: Yes, the lockdown was definitely a time for self-reflection and I’ve grown a lot during that time. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been used to hitting tennis balls every day. I had never really taken a break before. Although the Covid virus is of course a global tragedy, I have tried to use the free time to my advantage. I was able to remember what was important in my life and set goals for myself – both personal and professional.