Naomi Osaka — How Influential is She?

Osaka has jumped onto the scene in recent years, lining up to be the female tennis figurehead. Nike’s belief in the 23-year-old was evident once they made her the highest-paid female athlete in history earning over $10 million in her first year. The future seems bright as her contract ends in 2025. Other organisations also acknowledge her influence, with $37.4 of earnings in 2019 mostly contributed by endorsements. Seeing a young athlete excel in their field is excellent to watch; however, the question has to be ‘why her?’.

The Japanese born tennis player certainly ticks the diversity box as she is of mixed heritage, born to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father. At three years old she moved with her family to the US, making her eligible for dual-citizenship. At the age of 22, Osaka decided to become a Japanese citizen, creating the perfect opportunity for an organisation like Nike. Now a representative of the Asian giant, coupled with the previous exposure of being a Black American, we haven’t seen such a marketable athlete since Tiger Woods. When comparing the two athletes, the factor giving Osaka the upper hand over Tiger is that she is a woman.

Nike’s Women’s business is on the rise as we saw an increase of 11% in 2019 and projected a rise in women’s fitness clothing demands going forward. Concerning this, they are committed to the improvement of women’s representation in the industry. As the face of female athletes, Osaka also understands the importance of pushing women’s sport to the next level, shown when she became part owner of US women’s soccer team North Carolina Courage.

When mentioning successful women in sport, it is vital to note Serena Williams. Williams has been at the top of her field since the late ’90s. She is a long-time representative of Nike and undoubtedly an inspiration to Osaka. However, her career has been paired with its fair share of adversity. With a career of extremes highs, making her arguably one of the best tennis players to play the game, it is clear social impacts would shadow her greatness at times. The media has consistently commented on William’s musculature, whilst hypersexualising her body. Not only do such acts diminish her achievements; they are reminiscent of White Supremacists tactics to belittle black women.

The 2018 US Open highlighted a microcosm of a black woman’s experience in society when Williams met Osaka in the final. Williams’ rift with the umpire gained the Women’s Tennis Association’s (WTA) attention by stating the umpire was sexist. We then saw Williams’s caricature circulate, illustrating her with an enlarged body, big lips, and exaggerated hair. Meanwhile, they eradicated Osaka’s ethnicity, depicting her as a skinny blonde woman to enforce the image of the ‘erratic’ black athlete. Viewing this scenario reminds us of the ‘multiply-burdened’ groups in civilisation. Not only do athletes face hostility through nationalism, but female black athletes face racism and sexism on top of that.

Considering the scrutiny Williams faced in her career; it would not be surprising to see Osaka promoting her Japanese heritage rather than standing as a black athlete. We have rarely seen black female athletes portrayed as the ‘darling’ star, in the same way how Sharapova was. Moreover, Tiger Woods was not able to handle the pressure of representing the black community.

With this in mind, Osaka’s social awareness led her to take steps Tiger and Serena never did. In August 2020, we saw the young athlete pull out of the Western & South Open to protest the ‘’continued genocide of Black people at the hands of police’’. Osaka also wore face masks with murdered black victims, enforcing her message. Such actions prove the 23-year-old is willing to leverage her image over social injustice, making it known tennis is an unimportant game when racial inequality exists. Decisions like these put pressure on organisations to stand by their athlete and even use their influence to improve tensions.

Considering who Naomi Osaka is, with her commercial support and international ties, we can see her influence can reach heights no other athlete has. The privilege of being Japanese in a sport where genders are seen more equally than others increases exposure in the Asian market. Couple this with her identifying as a ‘black woman’, creates the chance of racial oppression and positive imagery of black women to circulate in areas ignorant to such truths. Heavy is the head who holds this responsibility; however, her allegiance with Nike, a supporter of activism, will no doubt amplify her impact.