Amaze. Inspire. Surprise. You’ll be hearing those words a lot in the coming weeks—together, they cut to the heart of why we love sports in the first place. So in the days leading up to the naming of SI’s Sportsperson we’ll be looking back and shining a light on the athletes, moments and teams (and one horse) who did one—or all—of those things in 2018. There can be only one Sportsperson. But it has been a year full of deserving candidates.
Like all ambitious, young tennis players, Naomi Osaka had cued the video years in advance. She had scripted the terms and conditions. She had imagined and reimagined the moment in her mind—the one when she would win her first major singles title. And to traffic in understatement, this sure as hell wasn’t how things were supposed to have played out.
Here was Osaka last September 8, standing on a podium inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. In the biggest match of her career, Osaka, then age 20, didn’t so much meet the moment as she’d kicked its ass. She had brought her unanswerable power to bear and had just taken down tennis’ Mother Superior, Serena Williams, in the final of the 2018 U.S. Open. As breakthroughs go, you could scarcely fashion one bigger in scope and scale.
Yet the mood inside the stadium was angry, not celebratory; the air pierced with boos, not cheers. During the trophy ceremony, tournament organizers, officials and agents argued off to the side of the court. They looked, Osaka recalls, “like concerned adults, all serious and what-do-we-do-now?” Osaka looked as though she had lost her pet, not won her first major singles title and almost $4 million in prize money. As she accepted the trophy, tears streaked her face. Ferociously shy—by her own admission—to begin with, Osaka offered the most unusual victory speech: “I know everyone was cheering for her and I’m sorry it had to end like this.”
Due in no small part to her opponent’s superior play, Williams grew frustrated this day by her inability to seize the occasion and win what would have been a record-tying 24th major singles title. And Serena erupted.
First at the chair umpire, after she was given a warning for coaching. Then at her racket, cracking it on the ground, drawing a point penalty. Finally, at the chair umpire again, calling him a thief and a liar and vowing he would never again officiate one of her matches.
The cumulative penalty was the loss of a game. It was then that the match officially turned into a circus. The crowd of 24,000 inside the stadium went nuts; so did millions watching (and tweeting) worldwide. Everyone from J.K. Rowling (fiercely pro) to Hank Aaron (pro-Serena) to Coke’s top sport marketing director (anti-Serena) offered hot takes. Serena’s outburst was still being spoofed on Saturday Night Live weeks later.
This had the effect of draining the joy out of Osaka’s moment. Even, now, with some detachment, when Osaka is asked to characterize the day, she won’t go better than “bittersweet.” At the same time she won’t get baited into disparaging Serena, the player she admits is still her idol. “I have so much tea right now, but I’m not going to spill it,” Osaka said this fall. “There’s a lot of stuff I want to say about, like, how I felt and whatever. But for me, I don’t know, I don’t know.”
It had the effect of obscuring a brilliant tournament for Osaka: even before out-Serena-ing Serena in the finals, Osaka was playing at multiple levels above anyone else in the field, at one point winning 20 straight games.
But Serena’s meltdown also had the effect of bleaching out one of the more colorful stories and figures in sports. A one-woman tribute to the power of globalization, Osaka is the rarest of ethnic mash-ups, the daughter of a Haitian father and Japanese mother who grew up mainly in Florida. Her father, Leonard Francois, saw an interview with Richard Williams in the late 1990s and decided to follow the same template with Naomi and her older sister, Mari—who’s struggled with injuries and is currently No. 326—and turn them into tennis players. Her mother, Tamaki, went along with the plan, providing support, transportation and a surname. (Strict coincidence, Osaka shares a name with her city of birth; she took her mom’s name to simplify pre-school enrollment in Japan.)
Osaka is also the sui generis in her personality. Her social introversion is such that she’ll wear headphones in the players’ lounge and locker room, not to listen to music but to avoid having to make conversation. But she’ll also lose her lungs watching Overwatch League teams and, before her star turn, was best known in tennis circles for her endearingly quirky interviews. Asked in 2017 what went through her mind as she played, she responded, “You know, there is that commercial that says, 'If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma’? That's all I could think about for the whole practice.”
Osaka’s ascent may not have gotten its due in the United States, but she’s already an ichiban-level celebrity in Japan. Within days of her U.S. Open title, she signed a sponsorship deal with Nissan. (That same week, Adidas also reportedly gave her the largest contract the brand has ever conferred on a female athlete.) When she played the Tokyo tournament in September, she got the Beatles-at-Heathrow treatment. (Tellingly, she reached the final.) With the 2020 Olympics heading to Tokyo, rest assured she will be featured prominently in the run-up.
So it is that we’ll learn plenty more about Osaka in 2019. It’s axiomatic that first-time major winners become laden with pressure, eager to prove they are legit and not one-hit wonders. In the case of Osaka, now up to No. 5 in the rankings, the expectation will be unprecedented.
Which is fine with her. There’s plenty of tea left spill, so to speak. “I think life is more than one tournament; it’s not like I’m done playing tennis,” she told tennis reporters this fall. “I don’t expect myself to just win one Grand Slam. Not to be cocky or anything but I feel like the more confidence I put in myself, the more I play better, so I try to tell myself that if I believe in myself then there’s a lot of good things that will happen.”
She will and they will. And next time, she’ll get the celebration she deserves.