This summer Naomi Osaka, the shy 22-year-old from Japan, became the highest-paid female athlete of all time—reportedly bringing in a cool $37.4 million in endorsement deals and prize money (and outpacing Serena Williams, formerly the highest-paid female athlete ever). Athletes with larger than life endorsement deals tend to have larger than life egos. But that’s not Osaka’s style. Her history-making wins feel less like explosive moments in the spotlight and more like a series of boxes to be quietly and methodically checked so that she can humbly but powerfully move on to the next goal.
Osaka has certainly made plenty of her own headlines this year but those aren’t the ones she’s focused on. In the face of the coronavirus pandemic and protests over police brutality, she’s turned her sometimes reluctant star power to activism, using her platform to highlight the Black Lives Matter Movement rather than self-promote—even if getting political could mean risking some of those lucrative sponsorships.
To mark Naomi’s quiet and profound impact on the world of sports, we asked the person who knows her best—her older sister Mari, who is a tennis champion and talented artist in her own right—to write her a love letter. Through Mari’s eyes, it’s clear why the broken records Naomi leaves in her wake seem almost inevitable—they’ve been preparing for this history-making moment since they were little girls.
Watching you do your thing is like watching somebody make their dreams come true in real life. We grew up talking about this—how we would get big, and we would get into fashion, and we would get boyfriends—and you made it real. You materialized it.
I’m not with you as much as I would like and I don’t always get to be there for these big wins. I know better than to give you tennis advice but it makes me happy that you still call me before big matches. You tell me you’re nervous. I tell you to picture everyone naked.
When it comes to tennis, I think this is the most important thing I’ve taught you: How to lose.
When we were growing up—like from age three to age 16—we would play sets every single day. Since I’m the older sister, I always won. But you never gave up. Every single day you said “I’m going to beat you tomorrow,” without your spirit going down. It was like constant motivation for you. For some people getting their butt handed to them everyday, they might give up. They might be like “Hmm this isn’t a good sport for me.” But not you. For you it was just more motivation. So, you’re welcome!
Then you did start winning. I remember you made this face—the most annoying face in the world—that made me want to punch you. But it’s cool. I’ll get you again.
You taught me to never give up. You get in some really bad situations sometimes, and then you put on your gameface and just grind through it. You don’t give up at all. Even if you complain, you’ll always be pushing through it.
If you say you’re going to do something, you manage to find a way to do it. A lot of people say they’re going to do something but then they don’t. You always do it. You always find a way. When we were little, you said you were going to win the U.S. Open. And then you did. That’s your whole life, not just tennis.
Stay hungry. Keep going for it. Honestly, there’s nothing that can really stop you. Except for maybe me next time we have a rematch.