Once upon a time, "she was a cipher with a racket."
As to Naomi Osaka's public persona, that was just a year ago, as it turns out, and especially among casual tennis or general sports fans. That was a time when she won a 2018 Indian Wells singles title, her first and, to date, her sole title outside of winning big at the past two major events.
Undefeated scribe Soraya Nadia McDonald gets to the root of Osaka's mystique here: "In tennis, an opponent can be dangerous if you can't read her serve. Osaka is dangerous because it is hard to read her."
Super honored to be on the cover of @espnmag World Fame 100 issue, out next week. Thanks to everyone involved in the shoot including: photographs by @Williamshirakawa; wardrobe stylist @erikagolcher; hair by @nina.hair.makeup; makeup by @makeupbylennie; dress by @soniarykiel and earrings by @hsternofficial
In a strong feature profile, McDonald nails it with this take on the current WTA No. 1's ascent: "The blessing and burden of Osaka's career is that she is running through doors Williams opened and she knows it. She is not made of stone. She is not oblivious to history."
Naomi Osaka told me what she thinks about the antiblackness that leads some tennis fans to embrace her as the force that will finally push Serena Wiiams out of the sport:https://t.co/OYxI1zUqvk pic.twitter.com/xmR72g0qmM— Soraya Nadia McDonald (@SorayaMcDonald) March 8, 2019
Such a line of thinking quickly places Osaka directly beside Serena Williams (and her sister Venus Williams, whose name does not emerge in the Undefeated story). McDonald asks Osaka about the incidents during and after September 2018's US Open final against Serena, and a handler from the 21-year-old's team seeks to shut down that stream of conversation. Osaka seems not to be having that, and answers the question fantastically: "If I were to put it bluntly, I know that there's a lot of people that don't like Serena, and I feel like they found that in me. Of course, I don't really like that. ... I want people to go with me for the right reasons."
"I love Serena," Osaka tells McDonald, later adding, "I wouldn't be where I am without her. That's a fact. She opened so many doors for tennis and especially for people of color."
She goes on in the interview to speak about the Williams sisters' dreadful 2001 experience at the Indian Wells event, when racially charged statements were reportedly hurled at Venus and Richard Williams while they watched Serena's championship match.
Osaka will find herself no stranger to controversy, given her success. Indeed, that has already proven to be the case, with a racially charged (that word again) political cartoon "white-washing" her after the US Open brouhaha, and sponsor Nissin's ad likewise lightening her complexion for another artistic appropriation, that in the style of Japanese animé.
It's true that trouble may find her. At some point, a difficult choice befalls every public figure of note, and that certainly includes elite athletes. But by all accounts, with a healthy guardedness about her thoughts, a strong sense of who she is, and the support of her family and team, Osaka is set to surmount an issue that arises. And she will quite likely do so by way of what she does best: hitting through it.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jonscott9.