The Transformation Of Naomi Osaka From Toddler To 25

This feature discusses mental health issues.

International tennis star Naomi Osaka has the world at her fingertips. She's one of the most marketable athletes in the world and one of the highest-paid female athletes in history, with a staggering 2022 income of $58 million in endorsements and corporate partnerships alone. She's even surpassed tennis great Serena Williams as the highest-paid female athlete in the world.

Osaka came to national attention when she beat Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open Grand Slam, catching the widespread attention of press and fans and winning endorsement deals and opportunities. The Japan-born athlete even has her choice of countries to represent, as she has dual citizenship with Japan and the United States, where she's lived since the age of three. She'll be representing Japan this summer.

In 2021, fans stood by Osaka when the 23-year-old chose to step back from the Roland Garros and Wimbledon competitions in order to protect her mental health. Ever the activist, Osaka spoke out about the difficulty of doing press conferences while under competition pressure, and despite being (perhaps unfairly) punished with a $15,000 fine, she'll be back in Tokyo this summer, and fans are thrilled. Let's explore Osaka's journey from her early days of training to her current successes.

Naomi's father was inspired by Serena and Venus Williams

Born in Osaka, Japan, on October 16, 1997, 18 months after her sister Mari, Naomi Osaka started learning tennis when she was only three years old. Her Haitian father, Leonard Maxime Francois, saw Venus and Serena Williams play at the 1999 French Open and was inspired. He learned how their father had trained them, and he set out to do the same with his two daughters, despite his lack of experience in tennis.

Francois met Naomi's mother, Tamaki Osaka, in Japan in the 1990s. Her family didn't approve of her relationship with a Haitian man, but it didn't stop them from marrying. The girls were given their mother's maiden name with the hopes of an easier life in Japan. Then the family left Japan for the United States when Naomi was 3, settling in Long Island with Francois' parents, where the girls started their tennis lessons.

The family moved to Florida in 2006, focusing on tennis with their father during the day and homeschooling at night. Though Mari showed promise and is also a professional player, she sustained injuries that slowed her down, and the competition inspired Naomi, who soon surpassed her sister. Naomi eventually started training with Patrick Tauma at ISP Academy and eventually the Harold Solomon and ProWorld Tennis Academies. There was no stopping Naomi now.

Naomi Osaka made a splash by going pro as a teen

Rather than competing in junior tournaments, Naomi Osaka continued following in Venus and Serena Williams' footsteps by embarking on pro satellite tours. She played her first qualifying match of the International Tennis Federation Women's Circuit in 2011, on her 14th birthday, and played other ITF tournaments, including doubles contests with her sister Mari, and even going up against (and sometimes losing to) her sister a few times.

Osaka went pro in September 2013, a month before her 16th birthday, playing the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo and qualifying for the 2014 Stanford Classic the following year, her first Women's Tennis Association tours. She continued playing for higher prizes and climbing up the rankings, playing ITF and WTA matches in cities around the globe. She was among the WTA's top 40 in 2016, and also won their title of "Newcomer of the Year" that year. These are just the start of her many accolades, even at so young an age.

Osaka and her family are fiercely proud of their legacy. She and her father decided that she would represent Japan in competitions, including in the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo. Though Osaka is not fluent in Japanese, she loves Japanese culture, including its movies and manga. In 2020, she even received a Manga character designed in her likeness.

2018 was a banner year for her

As her star continued to rise, Naomi Osaka won her first WTA tour at Indian Wells, Calif., in March 2018, kicking off a slate of huge wins. In September that same year, Osaka beat her idol, 23-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams, at the U.S. Open, winning accolades (and some criticism) as the first Japanese player to win the Grand Slam. It turned out to be an extremely controversial match, as fans expected to see Williams tie the record for Grand Slam titles, but instead lost to young upstart Osaka, also while receiving code violations for her conduct. Osaka even received boos from the crowd after winning her first Grand Slam title.

But lest those fans think Osaka was a fluke, she followed that massive win with another, capturing the title at the Australian Open in 2019. With that win, she became the first player since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to follow her first Grand Slam with a second one. She also became the first Asian player, male or female, to be ranked at Number 1.

Her power with a racket is unmistakable. According to USA Today, her serve reportedly flies in at 125 miles per hour, and that was in 2016. Meanwhile, Racquet Magazine said she had forehand swings at over 100 miles per hour when she was 16. And she's just getting stronger.

She is an outspoken activist, too

Naomi Osaka is an intriguing athlete in part because of her background. She was raised in the United States and represents Japan in competition. "When I go to Japan, people are confused," Osaka told USA Today. "From my name, they don't expect to see a Black girl." Yet, as The New York Times put it, "For some, [she] symbolizes something as large as the world's multicultural future."

Osaka is already making statements and challenging people's assumptions. She's known as an activist athlete — a title she isn't entirely comfortable with. "I don't consider myself an activist," she told Sports Illustrated. "I consider myself a person that has something they believe in and wants to speak about it ... anyone who wants to be an activist or has a lot of things they believe in, they shouldn't be scared."

While playing at the 2020 U.S. Open in the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Osaka made a bold statement by wearing a different face mask for each of her seven matches. Each mask had the name of a Black victim of violence or police brutality, including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Treyvon Martin. While she didn't expect the response it got, she told SI, "The biggest thing was just to, like, make people talk about it." Mission accomplished.

Naomi Osaka was vocal about her mental health

After withdrawing from the French Open in May 2021, Naomi Osaka spoke out about having experienced mental health issues. The Tennis Federation had penalized the star for not participating in a press conference because she needed time off. That led her to take a break from the sport altogether, which wasn't an easy decision. During an appearance on "GMA," Osaka later admitted, "I kind of felt ashamed in that moment, because as an athlete, you're told to be strong and push through everything. I think I learned that it's better to regroup and address the feelings that you have in that moment."

Osaka received a lot of praise from people like Meghan Markle and Michelle Obama for putting her well-being first and spreading awareness on a stigmatized topic. She told Harper's Bazaar, "So many people reached out to me ... it really was helpful for me to know that I wasn't alone, but also that I was able to help someone else."

In July 2021, Osaka was even featured on the cover of Time magazine, where she wrote about her mental health journey. She explained, "I do hope that people can relate and understand it's okay to not be okay, and it's okay to talk about it." She also called for athletes to be able to take time out to care for their health without punishment or scrutiny. It seems Osaka doesn't regret sharing her truth. "Speaking up and being really honest with everyone has allowed me such freedom and a sense of relief," she said.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

The tennis star became a fashion icon

It's safe to say that Naomi Osaka became a fashion icon in 2021, considering that she co-chaired fashion's most important night, The Met Gala. She's even graced the pages and covers of several fashion magazines. In 2020, Osaka shared her excitement about appearing on the cover of Vogue, writing on Instagram, "Growing up looking at my idols on the cover and now being able to be in their position is crazy to me." That same year, she shared another magazine milestone on the platform, posting, "First Haitian and Japanese woman on the cover of [Sports Illustrated] swimsuit."

Osaka has even worked behind the scenes in fashion. In 2020, she partnered with the Japanese-American luxury fashion brand, Adeam, on a collection that they showed off at New York Fashion Week. However, the tennis superstar has also modeled fashions by other major brands like Louis Vuitton, Levi's, and Frankie's Bikinis. Speaking to WWD about her Frankie's Bikinis partnership, she explained that she likes to work with companies that prioritize all-embracing designs that make the wearer feel self-assured. 

She worked with Victoria Secret's VSCollective in 2022 for similar reasons, sharing, "[I'm] proud to ... support the brand's dedication to evolving, listening, and growing." Osaka likewise approaches her own designs in a similar manner. Speaking about her 2022 collection with Nike, she wrote on Instagram, "It was important to me that there was something for everyone which means more versatile, gender-neutral pieces."

Naomi Osaka competed in the Tokyo Olympics

After taking a break from tennis, Naomi Osaka returned to the game in July 2021 to represent Japan in the Tokyo Olympics. She had expressed her excitement to Time beforehand, writing, "To have the opportunity to play in front of the Japanese fans is a dream come true." Osaka even got to mark the start of the ceremony by lighting the Olympic cauldron, tweeting, "Undoubtedly the greatest athletic achievement and honor I will ever have in my life."

Unfortunately, Osaka got some backlash for not representing the U.S. in the Games. She explained in her Netflix documentary (via Insider), "I've been playing under the Japan flag since I was 14. It was never even a secret that I'm going to play for Japan for the Olympics ... I don't choose America and suddenly people are like, 'Your Black card is revoked.'" On top of that, Osaka went on to lose in the third round much to everyone's surprise. As she admitted to The Guardian, the Olympics was even more challenging for her after having taken time out for her mental health. "I am glad I didn't lose in the first round at least," she added.

Osaka later reflected on her Olympic experience in a 2022 Instagram post, admitting that she had some regrets. "There was a deep sense of sadness for not having more fun," she revealed. At the very least, she appeared to learn from her mistakes and vowed to indulge in the joy of her life experiences moving forward. 

The athlete founded a beauty brand

In September 2021, Naomi Osaka launched her own beauty line, KINLÒ, with a mission outside of just expanding her brand. "KINLÒ was made for people with melanated skin. Because we found that there wasn't that many sunscreen products available for them," she said on "GMA." Osaka was apparently inspired to take action after some research led to a startling revelation. She explained to Forbes, "There was a statistic that really shook me and that was the fact that people of color have a three times higher mortality rate due to skin cancer than other people."

Osaka now uses KINLÒ herself, especially on the court. As she told People, the untinted and sweat-proof nature of the product makes it perfect for her particular protection needs on the court. That was particularly important for her because she had always struggled to find the right sunscreen. "I remember as a kid hating when my parents would put sunscreen on me because it wasn't smooth and never blended in," she revealed to Oprah Daily.

The athlete doesn't just promote her brand by wearing it. Her video campaigns for the product also spread a positive message about beauty. "I truly believe we are doing something special here with KINLÒ and these films we've created embody everything we are and aim to accomplish with this brand,"  Osaka dished to People. "The goal of this film is to act as a powerful statement about being different and loving yourself."

She launched her own production company

Naomi Osaka continued to build her empire in June 2022 by starting her own production company called Hana Kuma. The U.S. Open winner announced its launch on Instagram, explaining what inspired her to create it. "Because my journey has been so different it's opened my eyes to all the incredible stories out there that aren't getting told ... stories that are culturally specific but universal," she explained.

Osaka teamed up with NBA star LeBron James, as well as the SpringHill Company to bring her vision to life. She told The Hollywood Reporter, "There has been an explosion of creators of color finally being equipped with resources and a huge platform." Osaka's first project was the film, "Mink!" which was about Patsy Mink, the author of the civil rights law, Title IX, which prohibited sex-based discrimination in government-funded schools. "Title IX is close to my heart and Patsy's story resonates as a Japanese woman of color growing up in the US while advocating for change," she told the outlet.

While Hana Kuma seemed off to a great start, Deadline reported that there was a little controversy over the name, which she said means "Flower Bear" in Japanese. That's because it has a totally different meaning in Swahili, with Hana Kuma said to mean, "Woman without a vagina." Osaka seemingly ignored those on social media who suggested she change it. However, around that time, she did also tweet, "Prayers for all my overthinkers. We be going through it."

Osaka authored a children's book

Naomi Osaka has proven that she really can do it all. In October 2022, she even wrote a children's book, "The Way Champs Play," about girls who play sports. When it came to her inspiration behind the story, she told People, "I wanted to reach young girls in a way that they would enjoy and understand and it was really fun to simplify and celebrate girls in sport." For Osaka, it was important that her book helps those girls find confidence in whatever they do. She explained, "I am still sorting through finding confidence in myself and what I do — that is why this book means so much."

What's more is that not only was "The Way Champs Play" Osaka's first publishing endeavor under her production company, "Hana Kuma," but the tennis champ also donated a portion of its proceeds to "Play Academy with Naomi Osaka," her foundation that supports girls in sports. She announced all that in a now-deleted Instagram post, adding (via Yahoo), "I hope this book inspires kids to chase their dreams and encourages them to believe they can do anything they put their minds to." While promoting the book on Instagram, she even posted a video of herself reading it to her dog, Butta, joking in the caption, "Reading my first book to my firstborn lol."

She made some serious business moves

Naomi Osaka seemingly shifted her focus to another sport in December 2022 when she invested in Major League Pickleball. The tennis superstar wasn't the only athlete to do so either since LeBron James and Kevin Durant had reportedly backed it before Osaka did. If that sounds strange, pickleball is apparently a huge up-and-coming sport in the U.S. Having started with eight major league teams in 2021, the sport has since grown to 24 teams in 2023. 

Osaka even took her involvement a step further, by introducing the team that she has part ownership of — The Miami Pickleball Club. In a since-deleted Instagram post (via Tennis Up To Date), she shared her new endeavor and presented the team's new draft picks. She also made it a point to express her enthusiasm, writing, "[It's] so cool to engage in another sport and excited it's in the 305."

That wasn't the first time that Osaka has worked in the business side of sports though. Earlier that year, in May 2022, she launched her own sports agency, Evolve, alongside her agent, Stuart Duguid. That move came after she left the IMG agency after six years with them. When it came to that decision, Osaka told Sportico, "I've spent my career doing things my way ... Evolve is the natural next step in my journey as both an athlete and businesswoman, as well as a way to continue being myself and doing things my way."

Naomi Osaka announced her first child with Cordae

All in all, 2023 was a big year for Naomi Osaka since. In January, she announced that she was expecting her first child with her boyfriend, rapper Cordae. The tennis player took to Instagram to make her pregnancy announcement by sharing a photo of her sonogram. She began her post by reflecting, "The past few years have been interesting to say the least, but I find that it's the most challenging times in life that may be the most fun." She went on to share how taking time off from work has not only made her appreciate tennis more but also taught her to not take life's precious moments for granted. "One thing I'm looking forward to is for my kid to watch one of my matches and tell someone, 'that's my mom,'" she added.

Osaka has kept her personal life pretty private over the years but she's reportedly been dating Cordae since 2019. However, in 2021, she did share a photoshoot she did with him for GQ on Instagram. She later gushed about him in another post, writing, "[Shoutout to] my best friend. You cool or whateva." While Osaka is starting her family with Cordae, she isn't quitting tennis for good. In her baby announcement, she added, "2023 will be a year that'll be full of lessons for me and I hope I'll see you guys in the start of the next one cause I'll be at [the Australia Open] 2024."