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Japanese, Haitian, and now a Grand Slam winner: Naomi Osaka’s historic journey to the U.S. Open

Japan's Naomi Osaka held her trophy after beating her tennis idol, Serena Williams, in a dramatic U.S. Open final on Sept. 8. (Video: Reuters)
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Nine days before she beat Serena Williams in the finals of the U.S. Open, Naomi Osaka already seemed bored talking about her own life story.

“Um, I think everybody knows this by now,” she said last month, with a small laugh. “Like I grew up in New York until I was 8 or 9 and then I moved to Florida, so…” She shrugged.

It was a somewhat oversimplified version of the rising tennis star’s unusual story: Her father, Leonard Francois, is Haitian; her mother, Tamaki Osaka, is Japanese. The two met in Hokkaido when Francois, then a college student in New York, was visiting the island. According to a recent profile in the New York Times Magazine, Tamaki Osaka’s father accused her of bringing disgrace on the family when he learned that she was dating a black foreigner, and the two moved to Osaka, Japan’s second largest city. It was while they were living there that the future tennis star was born.

Yes, her last name is the same as the city of her birth, which is another thing that she’s clearly tired of talking about.

“You ready?” she said when a reporter asked about it on Saturday. “We’re recycling a joke from 2014! Everyone who was born in Osaka, their last name is Osaka.”

“I never know what to do when someone asks me where I’m from,” Osaka tweeted in May 2017. “I just say FL, because saying Japan starts an unnecessary conversation.”

She may be tired of the questions about her complicated identity, but given her growing celebrity, they’re unlikely to go away anytime soon. The 20-year-old is currently ranked seventh in the world, and her victory on Saturday made her Japan’s first Grand Slam champion. She’s also believed to be the first Grand Slam winner of Haitian descent. “At the U.S. Open, Naomi Osaka looks like the next best player in the world,” read one headline in the New Yorker.

On Saturday, Osaka inadvertently found herself in the middle of a raging controversy after umpire Carlos Ramos decided to penalize Williams for her tone of voice during their match. Because of his widely criticized call, Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins wrote, “we will never know whether young Osaka really won the 2018 U.S. Open or had it handed to her by a man who was going to make Serena Williams feel his power.”

Yet for all the outpouring of anger that followed, virtually none of it was directed at Osaka, who instead was praised for her humility. At the trophy presentation, she cried, telling the crowd, “I’m sorry it had to end like this.”

Then, she turned to Williams and bowed to her, saying, “I’m really grateful I was able to play with you.”

Osaka has frequently described Williams, the winner of 23 Grand Slams, as her idol and inspiration. And like Williams, she was trained primarily by her father, along with her older sister Mari, who is also a professional tennis player.

“I was 3 when I started playing tennis,” she told Bleacher Report last month. “It’s the only thing I’ve really known and the thing that I’m best at.”

By then, her parents had left Japan and moved to Long Island to be closer to Francois’s family. Several years later, they would move to South Florida, where many of the country’s best young tennis players are trained. Broward County, where they settled, also has a sizable Haitian population — Creole is the third-most common language after English and Spanish in the county, appearing on ads on buses and official government notices. Osaka’s upbringing, she’s said in interviews, was influenced by both Japanese and Haitian culture. When she talks, she sounds like any other 20-year-old from Florida. Asked about her career goals in 2016, she replied, “To be the very best, like no one ever was. That’s a Pokemon quote, I’m sorry. That’s the Pokemon theme song. ”

“She has some of the purest raw power in the game, a serve that she can use to dictate points and a whipping forehand swing that generates phenomenal racket head speed,” Louisa Thomas wrote in Racquet magazine. “Even as a 16-year-old, she’d clocked forehands at over a hundred miles an hour.”

When Osaka turned pro in 2013, her dual citizenship meant that she had a choice between playing for Japan or the United States. Her father chose Japan, thinking it would open up more opportunities for her.

The country is fairly homogeneous and Osaka, as a half-black woman, stood out. “I could see the shock on people’s faces,” she told Racquet magazine in March, remembering her first tournaments.

[Japan’s half-black Miss Universe says discrimination gives her ‘extra motivation’]

After the 2016 Australian Open, Osaka commented that it was “touching” that there were Japanese flags in the stand, and Japanese fans cheering for her. “I always think that they’re surprised that I’m Japanese,” she explained.

But Osaka is not entirely comfortable speaking in Japanese, which is understandable, considering that she left the country as a toddler. At news conferences last week, she took questions in Japanese but replied to most of them in English. Yet, her posts on Twitter and Instagram alternate between the two languages.

“I don’t know if you guys know this but I can understand most Japanese and I speak when I want to,” she tweeted in January, adding, “that applies to my family and friends.”

“Thank you for your continuous support always,” she told fans on her website, which is available in both languages. “I will do my best on every game! And I will keep trying hard to speak better Japanese.”

With her Grand Slam win, Osaka has become an overnight sensation in Japan. One teacher in the city of Kobe told the Associated Press that Osaka’s post-match comments were “so cool and yet so Japanese.” But the spate of headlines referring to her as the first Japanese woman to win the championship has also made some fans feel like her black identity is being erased.

Osaka, for her part, has repeatedly reminded reporters that she is Japanese and Haitian. But she doesn’t seem to get asked about her Haitian side as often.

“Talk about your relationship with Japanese culture and U.S. culture,” one reporter asked her on Wednesday, following Osaka’s quarterfinal victory. “How did both cultures make you who you are?”

“My dad’s Haitian, so I grew up in a Haitian household in New York,” Osaka reminded her. “I lived with my grandma. And my mom’s Japanese and I grew up with the Japanese culture too, and if you’re saying American, I guess because I lived in America, I also have that too . . . I hope I answered your question. I don’t know.”

It might not be her favorite subject, or one that she’s completely comfortable discussing, but Osaka is aware that her multicultural background means that she’s well positioned to become an international celebrity. At the 2016 Australian Open, she was asked why she had so many fans.

“Probably because they think I’m interesting,” she told reporters. “Maybe it’s because they can’t really pinpoint what I am, so it’s like anybody can cheer for me.”

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