Nancy Gillen

Naomi Osaka is now the player to beat on the Women’s Tennis Association circuit. 

The Japanese star clinched a fourth Grand Slam title as she defeated America’s Jennifer Brady in the Australian Open final, receiving the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup for the second time in her career.

Osaka first won the Australian Open in 2019, just four months after achieving her first Grand Slam title at the US Open. At 21-years-old, Osaka was seen as endearingly awkward, revealing in her victory speech that she was not entirely comfortable in the spotlight. "Public speaking isn’t really my strong side, so I just hope I can get through this," she said.

Two years later and Osaka is still not the strongest at public speaking. As she received her hard-won trophy in front of the crowd on the Rod Laver Arena, Osaka asked Brady whether she preferred to be called Jennifer or Jenny. Despite the clarification, Osaka still proceeded to get the name wrong.

A mortified Osaka later apologised on Twitter. "I promise you my mind thought I called her Jenny in that moment and I was so confused why the crowd was laughing," she posted. "I’m so sorry."

Still, Osaka appears more confident and self-assured now than she did in 2019. Over the past 12 months, regardless of her dislike of public speaking, her voice has grown stronger. Osaka has surely become one of the most influential sportswomen around at this present moment.

Her foray into athlete activism at last year’s US Open is evidence of this. Before each match, Osaka entered the Arthur Ashe Stadium wearing a facemask bearing the name of a victim of racism and police brutality in the United States. Her run in the tournament was a winning one, giving her the opportunity to wear seven different masks in total.

Osaka revealed she wore the masks to "make people start talking". Her actions came after a summer dominated by Black Lives Matter protests across the world, and she did indeed keep the conversation going. Osaka also helped bring the discourse surrounding Black Lives Matter to her birth country of Japan.

There were small anti-racism protests held across Japan, but the country’s national broadcaster NHK showed significant change was still needed when it published a racist video in June, depicting black protesters with harmful stereotypes. Osaka’s protest at the US Open, given as much broadcast time and newspaper space as her actual performance on court, helped bring more awareness in Japan to the reasons behind the Black Lives Matter movement.

Worldwide media also seek Osaka’s opinion because of her links with the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo. Osaka moved to the United States when she was three and still resides in the country. She decided to represent Japan on the international stage in 2019, however, and is now one of the host nation’s main medal contenders for Tokyo 2020.

Naomi Osaka wore a facemask bearing the names of a victim of racism and police brutality in the United States before every match at last year's US Open ©Getty Images
Naomi Osaka wore a facemask bearing the names of a victim of racism and police brutality in the United States before every match at last year's US Open ©Getty Images

Depending on her own performance and the accomplishments of her compatriots, Osaka could well become the face of the Games. She is already being asked her opinion on certain issues concerning Tokyo 2020, such as the recent sexism row sparked by Yoshirō Mori.

Osaka was critical of the offensive comments made by Mori, who held the role of Tokyo 2020 President at the time. She also praised the decision to replace Mori with Seiko Hashimoto. Her view on the matter was reported worldwide. It subsequently seems fair to say the proximity of Tokyo 2020 has given Osaka’s opinion an increased importance.

Of course, Osaka has contributed to the new prominence of her platform through her performances on court. Sport has been limited over the past year by the COVID-19 pandemic, but Osaka has taken every playing opportunity presented and shown that she is a force to be reckoned with.

Many other influential sportswomen have had their voices diminished by the pandemic due to minimal playing time. American footballer and activist Megan Rapinoe has hardly kicked a ball for the past 12 months, for example. This is not to say Rapinoe’s words would have any less of an impact at the moment, but Osaka currently has the greater platform as she racks up Grand Slam wins.

Naomi Osaka recently invested in NWSL team North Carolina Courage ©Getty Images
Naomi Osaka recently invested in NWSL team North Carolina Courage ©Getty Images

This is not to dismiss Serena Williams either. The trailblazing tennis player will always hold a large degree of influence in the world of sport due to her record-breaking achievements, but the Australian Open semi-final between Williams and Osaka felt like the handing over of the mantle. Retirement is likely to soon be on the cards for the 39-year-old Williams, but Osaka seems ready to step into her shoes.

There was a recent news story about Osaka which confirmed her place at the pinnacle of women’s sport. Having been named Forbes’ Highest Paid Female Athlete in 2020, Osaka splashed the cash by investing in North Carolina Courage, a team in the National Women's Soccer League.

Her comments after investing in the team showed a recognition that she now holds a large degree of influence in the sporting world, and has decided to use it for good. 

"The women who have invested in me growing up made me who I am today and I cannot think of where my life would be without them," she said. "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. I also admire everything the Courage does for diversity and equality in the community, which I greatly look forward to supporting and driving forward."

At just 23-years-old, Osaka is likely to be playing top-level tennis for many years to come. Judging by her actions and performances during the past 12 months, she has the potential to become one of the greatest sportswomen of all time.