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Naomi Osaka headed for big money with Japan, global appeal

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TOKYO — Naomi Osaka used a powerful forehand and a matching serve to win the US. Open against Serena Williams two months ago, soaring as high as No. 4 this season in the WTA tennis rankings.

Off the court – on the marketing front – she has the same potential. Maybe more.

“It’s very, very rare to find a Japanese-born female athlete who appeals to an international audience,” said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert and creative director at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco, California.

Serena Williams topped the Forbes list of the highest-earning female athletes this year at $18 million, almost all endorsements.

Osaka appears to be the right woman in the right sport at the right time with the draw to overtake Williams.

“What’s more, tennis, especially women’s tennis, is a sport that lends itself to a broad variety of sponsors: sporting goods, health and beauty, fashion, lifestyle, travel, personal care, you name it,” Dorfman said. “And the sport’s international following brings with it a large, loyal and affluent fan base. All the more reason why so many companies are lining up to sign her up.”

The big question is: Can she keep this up?

Much has happened very quickly for her, notes former tennis star Chris Evert.

“You know, it’s going to be life-changing for her and very, very important,” Evert said. “From what I see, she is very humble and from what I see, her parents are very humble people. Hopefully they won’t go Hollywood on us. We don’t want that to happen.”

Osaka’s multicultural background – Japan-born but raised in the U.S. by a Haitian-American father and a Japanese mother – adds to her wide appeal, endearing her to fans in Japan and elsewhere.

Her disarming charm, off and on the court, including how she handled the turmoil surrounding her win over Williams, is also winning people over.

“She appeals to the young and old, men and women, everyone,” said Shigeru Tanaka, advertising manager at Citizen, her sponsor since August.

Tokyo-based Citizen Watch Co.’s 80,000 yen ($700) Naomi Osaka watch is selling out at stores in Japan, thanks to the exposure it got on her wrist at the U.S. Open.

Citizen was quick to take advantage of her Grand Slam win, taking out a one-third page ad in the Yomiuri newspaper’s extra edition report of her win.

Companies won’t say how much her contracts are worth, but they tend to be written so that if she keeps winning, her earnings will keep going up. If one company won’t pay, another will just snatch her up, marketing experts say.

Although Japanese baseball players like Ichiro and Shohei Ohtani are superstars, that sport doesn’t have the global appeal of tennis. There are Olympians, but their appeal tends to come and go every four years.

Japan is “just starving for a star,” Evert said.

Osaka has been wearing various Citizen watches in matches and in photo ops and has told reporters the first watch she got from her mom was a Citizen. She has also said her father drove a Nissan while she was growing up – another in a growing line of sponsors.

Besides Citizen, Osaka has deals with instant noodle-maker Nissin Foods Group, Japanese badminton and tennis racket maker Yonex Co., and athletic-wear and sneaker giant Adidas.

Nissan Motor Co. signed Osaka as its three-year “brand ambassador” in September. The deal was in the works for a while, but the timing couldn’t have been better, coming right after the U.S. Open.

The Yokohama-based automaker is mulling a “Naomi Osaka model” car. She is also getting keys to a silver GT-R sports car. Investing in Osaka enhances brand image for the long-term, said Masao Tsutsumi, general manager in charge of Osaka-related marketing at Nissan.

He said her transformation from “every girl” to superstar parallels the automaker’s commitment to technological innovation. “She also is such a nice person while being utterly professional,” he added.

Yonex has been supplying rackets to Osaka since she was 10, after receiving a letter from her mother. The Osaka effect is evident in the growing popularity of Yonex rackets among younger Americans, the company says.

Appearing before Yonex employees in Tokyo, Osaka drew affectionate laughter by insisting on addressing the crowd in Japanese, though she managed only a few words, including “onaji,” or “the same,” says Nori Shimojo, the company’s official in charge of tennis player service.

At just 21, Osaka’s got plenty of time to learn the language of her birthplace if she wants to.

As for her sponsorship windfall, she is shrugging it all off.

“I wouldn’t really know because I have never been in this territory,” she said during a recent tournament in Singapore. “For me, I just focus on my matches, and, I mean, like I’m a tennis player, so I just play tennis.”

Djokovic wins World Sportsman of the Year at Laureus World Sports Awards

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MONACO  — Novak Djokovic, Tiger Woods, Lindsey Vonn and the France national soccer team were among the winners at the Laureus World Sports Awards, with Woods claiming the Comeback Award 19 years after he was first recognized.

Djokovic matched Usain Bolt’s record by being named World Sportsman of the Year for the fourth time after winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He also earned the honor in 2012, 2015 and 2016.

Woods, who won the inaugural World Sportsman of the Year award in 2000, won the Tour Championship in September for his 80th PGA Tour title and his first since August 2013.

Vonn, who retired during the recent Alpine skiing world championships , took home the Spirit of Sport Award, which is given to an athlete for relentless dedication to his or her career, and France was honored for winning the World Cup in July.

Simone Biles was named World Sportswoman of the Year for winning four gold, one silver and one bronze medal at the gymnastics world championships. Naomi Osaka won the Breakthrough Award for winning the U.S. Open and Chloe Kim was named the World Action Sportsperson of the Year.

The awards were given in recognition of outstanding sports performance in 2018.

Wawrinka loses to Monfils in first final since knee surgeries

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ROTTERDAM, Netherlands — Three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka’s rebuilt knee couldn’t quite carry him to the title in Rotterdam on Sunday.

Wawrinka lost his first final since his comeback a year ago from left knee surgeries, succumbing 6-3, 1-6, 6-2 to Gael Monfils of France at the ABN AMRO World Tournament.

It was the Frenchman’s eighth career title.

“I tried a couple of times here. I lost the final in 2016,” Monfils told Dutch national broadcaster NOS courtside. He said it was special to win a tournament that his idol, Arthur Ashe, also won. Ashe won back-to-back titles in Rotterdam in 1975 and ’76.

Unseeded Wawrinka reached the final by beating top-seeded Kei Nishikori in three sets on Saturday.

But the Swiss finally ran out of steam in the final set as Monfils stepped up his game.

“In the third set I was a little bit more aggressive and I go a bit more for my shots, I served bigger and that helped me a lot,” Monfils said.

Wawrinka was going for his 17th career title and second in Rotterdam, after winning in 2015.

It was his first final since the 2017 French Open, where he previously met Monfils in the fourth round.

Monfils also needed three sets to overcome fifth-seeded Daniil Medvedev in the semifinals, but outlasted Wawrinka in a match that took 1 hour, 44 minutes.

After they shared the first two sets, Monfils was more consistent than Wawrinka in the decisive third.

Already trailing 4-2, Wawrinka hit three unforced errors to lose the seventh game and allow Monfils to serve out the match.