How Naomi Osaka Became the Richest Female Athlete
Few athletes in the world have faced the glare of the media spotlight more than tennis superstar Naomi Osaka. When the 23-year-old dropped out of the 2021 French Open citing mental health concerns, her story became about more than sports.
There's just way, way more to Osaka than just leaving the French Open early. She's one of the more talented, groundbreaking athletes to come on the professional sports scene in the last decade and could dominate the world of tennis for the foreseeable future. She's also already one of the richest athletes, male or female, in all of professional sports.
Here are some things you might not know about Naomi Osaka.
This Isn't the First Time She's Left a Tournament Unexpectedly
In August 2020, Osaka announced she was stopping play at the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati — part of a large wave of professional athletes across all sports who boycotted playing in a call for social justice and an end to police violence.
Osaka was scheduled to play in the semifinals before she issued a statement on her Twitter account saying she would no longer play. The tournament stood behind Osaka's statement and paused play entirely.
"Before I am an athlete, I am a black woman," she wrote. "As a black woman I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis."
Osaka returned to play in the semifinals but withdrew from the finals because of a hamstring injury.
She's Not the First Athlete to Turn Her Back on the Media
Osaka is hardly the first athlete to turn her back on the media, although you can make an argument she's the most high-profile athlete in individual sports (i.e., golf and tennis) to turn her back on them.
In football, Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch famously conducted Super Bowl interviews with one sentence — "I'm just here so I don't get fined" — after he was fined $125,000 for two media no-shows during the regular season.
In basketball, Rasheed Wallace answered all questions during a news conference in the 2003 NBA playoffs with "both teams played hard, man."
She'll Never Be the GOAT of Pro Athletes vs. the Media
Osaka's need to protect her mental health started a serious conversation that needs to be had about how society treats athletes who are in the spotlight like she is.
In the world of sports, we haven't always been so open to change. And Osaka is far, far from becoming the athlete who has had the biggest beef with the media.
When Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Steve Carlton slumped in 1973 and went 13-20 with a 3.90 ERA, the media was more than unkind, and questioned his unorthodox training techniques. Starting in 1974, Carlton refused to speak with the media for the rest of his career — he didn't retire until 1989.
He was never fined.
When Did Osaka's Mental Health Issues Begin?
If you understand some key things about Osaka's background, you can begin to understand why she is sensitive to scrutiny and being in the spotlight — mainly because as far back as she can remember, she was treated as an outsider.
The relationship between Osaka's Japanese mother and Haitian father — and the children it produced — weren't exactly met with open arms to the world. Her mother's parents refused to speak with the family for 15 years, until Osaka's rise to tennis fame. In her native Japan, Osaka is referred to as "hafu," meaning she's half-Japanese.
That could be the seed for some serious trust issues.
Osaka's Talent Thrust Her Into the Spotlight
Osaka's quiet nature made many on the professional tennis circuit think she was a diva early on. That's not the case. She's just shy.
Never was that more on display than after she won at the Indian Wells Open in 2018 and stumbled her way through an acceptance speech.
"Um, hello ... I'm Naom ... oh never mind," Osaka started her speech, which she told the crowd would be the "worst acceptance speech of all time."
That's not being aloof. That's just being nervous to speak in front of large crowds, which is more than understandable.
She Could Give an Acceptance Speech in Three Languages
Osaka has gotten somewhat better at acceptance speeches, and in an interesting twist, she can actually give an acceptance speech in three languages.
Osaka grew up speaking Creole, Japanese and English and can speak all three fluently — the Creole because of her Haitian grandparents and the Japanese because of her mother, Tamaki Osaka.
The family moved to New York when Osaka was just 5 years old.
Osaka Is Truly a Citizen of the World
Osaka could claim citizenship for three countries — Japan, where she was born, Haiti, where her father is from, and the United States, where she's lived since she was 5 years old.
Osaka's family made the decision early on that she would represent Japan in any international competitions, citing the culture she was raised in. There's also the fact that the family perceived the USTA wasn't as welcoming as it should have been early in Osaka's career.
Her Family Made Sacrifices for Her Career
With no tennis experience of his own, Osaka's father, Leonard Francois, was fascinated by the game and scored tickets to the 1999 U.S. Open when the family was living in New York.
That was where he learned the story of sisters Serena and Venus Williams and their father/coach Richard Williams, who guided their career to international stardom.
In a move of true genius/inspiration/insanity, for some reason, Francois thought he might be able to do that with his own daughters, Mari and Naomi, and moved the family to Florida a few years later. They both became pro tennis players.
Osaka's Intro to the Public Spotlight Was Harsh
Osaka's introduction to the public spotlight was particularly harsh and became known for one of the biggest temper tantrums in sports history — her 2018 U.S. Open finals victory over Serena Williams, which was also Osaka's first Grand Slam singles victory.
Williams had a meltdown arguing calls with an umpire and was assessed a game penalty. She was booed throughout the game and Osaka's acceptance speech.
Osaka called it "not necessarily the happiest memory."
When the Shoe Was on the Other Foot, Osaka Exhibited Grace
Perhaps as a direct result of her nightmare experience at the 2018 U.S. Open final against Serena Williams, Osaka exhibited a tremendous amount of grace when the shoe was on the other foot.
After defeating 15-year-old Coco Gauff in the third round of the 2019 U.S. Open, Osaka noticed Gauff almost in tears and approached her to conduct the post-match interview together.
Osaka had been in Gauff's shoes just a few years earlier and knew it was better to go through things together than alone. That's grace.
Osaka's Earning Potential Is Almost Unlimited
At just 23 years old, Osaka is already breaking records for money made by a female athlete.
She's been the highest-paid female athlete in the world the last two years. From May 2019 to May 2020, she reportedly made $37.4 million, and from May 2020 to May 2021, she reportedly made $55 million.
Both of those are records for the most money made by a female athlete in a single year, breaking records set by her idol, fellow tennis star Serena Williams.
All That Money Means Osaka Can Afford Fines
The French Open was reportedly going to fine Osaka $15,000 for each media appearance she turned her back on before she just dropped out of the tournament entirely.
That's a pittance compared with the money some of the other professional leagues fine players for missing media appearances.
Wellness app Calm offered to pay Osaka's fines when she wanted the money donated to charity.
Osaka's Endorsements Make Up the Bulk of Her Earnings
The $19.7 million Osaka has made in career tennis winnings is a pittance compared to the money she makes from endorsements — reportedly $16 million in 2019 and a huge leap up to $34 million in 2020.
Nike has been Osaka's sponsor since it replaced Adidas, where she had an endorsement deal the first four years of her career, and Nike now produces not only Osaka shoes but a clothing line.
In 2021, she also became the brand ambassador for high-profile endorsements with Tag Heuer watches and Louis Vuitton.
Osaka Is the Co-Owner of a Professional Soccer Team
In January 2021, Osaka joined an exclusive group of current and former professional athletes who have become owners or co-owners of professional teams in other sports.
Osaka purchased a stake in the North Carolina Courage of the National Women's Soccer League
"My investment in the North Carolina Courage is far beyond just being a team owner. It's an investment in amazing women who are role models and leaders in their fields and inspirations to all young female athletes," she said.
She's in a High-Profile Relationship With a Rapper
Osaka has been in a high-profile relationship with Grammy-nominated rapper Cordae since April 2019.
Cordae is a 23-year-old North Carolina native — the same state where Osaka owns a NWSL team. His "Bad Idea" was nominated for two Grammy Awards in 2020, for Best Rap Album and Best Rap Single.
Cordae, who has no tennis background, has been seen cheering for Osaka at many of her matches.
She Bought Her $7 Million Beverly Hills Hideaway From a Pop Star
Osaka purchased her Beverly Hills home for $7 million from pop star Nick Jonas in 2019, where she now reportedly lives part of the time with her boyfriend, Cordae.
It's hard to put into words exactly how stunning the views from the house are — here's a gallery of photos that do it much better.
Would You Want to Leave That Mansion?
Providing further evidence that Osaka's home in Beverly Hills might be the coolest place on Earth, she announced she'd been missing more than just the rest of the French Open when she backed out of the Berlin Open — largely thought of as the main tune-up to Wimbledon.
Hopefully, Osaka is getting some more time by the pool and spending less time worrying about tennis, which will most definitely be there whenever she decides to come back.
She's Supposed to Play in the 2021 Olympics
Osaka was already on the minds of Olympic organizers when the games were originally scheduled in Tokyo for 2020. She will no doubt be one of the faces of the games for their proposed new date in 2021.
After withdrawing from the French Open and the Berlin Open back-to-back and no guarantee she'll play in Wimbledon, Osaka may feel more pressure from her sponsors to play in the Olympics in her home country.
Puerto Rico's Monica Puig is the defending gold medalist in women's singles, but she will miss the Tokyo Games and the rest of the tennis season due to shoulder surgery.
Winning at the Olympics Would Make More History
If Osaka were to medal at the Olympics, she would be making history.
Japan has never had a female athlete medal in tennis and never had any tennis player, male or female, win a gold medal.
Japan has won three tennis medals in Olympics history — Ichiya Kumagae won a silver medal in singles at the 1920 Olympics, where he also combined with Seiichiro Kashio to win a silver in doubles.
Kei Nishikori ended a 96-year medal drought for Japan by winning the silver medal at the 2016 Olympics in men's singles.
Could Osaka Become the World's Highest-Paid Athlete?
Only a trio of athletes earned more money from endorsements than Osaka in 2020 — tennis star Roger Federer, basketball star LeBron James and golfer Tiger Woods.
If you know anything about sports, those athletes represent what is becoming a considerable void in the world of top-level endorsements.
Roger Federer Has Not Won a Grand Slam Singles Title Since 2018
Roger Federer hasn't played full-time in over a year, and hasn't won a Grand Slam singles title since 2018.
Like Osaka, he also pulled out of the 2021 French Open, although his reason was injury concerns after surgery on both knees in the past year.
Tiger Woods Is Learning How to Walk on His Own Again
Tiger Woods pulled off arguably the greatest win in golf history at the 2019 Masters, where he ended an 11-year drought of winning a major. It was one of the more improbable comebacks of all time.
Woods' journey back to the top of his sport took a tragic turn in February 2021 when he broke both of his legs and sustained other major injuries in a single-car accident.
Woods, who is 45 years old, said in May that his No. 1 goal was to learn to walk on his own again.
LeBron James Just Completed His 18th NBA Season
Basketball star LeBron James will be the hardest to topple if Osaka is to become the world's highest-paid athlete when it comes to endorsements.
James just completed his 18th NBA season and has shown no sign he's anywhere near thinking about retirement. The Akron, Ohio, native is 36 years old and should be able to play well into his 40s if that's what he wants.
Can Naomi Osaka Be a Reluctant Superstar?
Part of being one of the world's highest-paid athletes when it comes to endorsements is being the face of multiple corporations at a time. And all of them want you to keep up appearances, so to speak.
Part of "keeping up appearances" is making yourself available to the media and avoiding controversy. That's not an endorsement of those principles. Just stating the facts.
Even if Osaka continues to win, it doesn't seem like the money will continue to flow in like it has if she continues her media blackout.
On the other side of that, if she can get a handle on what she can put up with and find some common ground to making those types of appearances (and continue to win), it's not hard to see her earnings shoot past $100 million per year sooner than later.