Naomi Osaka headed for big money with Japan, global appeal

AP Images
0 Comments

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.”

Rybakina, Sabalenka to meet in Australian Open women’s final

australian open
Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

MELBOURNE, Australia — What all seemed so different, so daunting, even, about trying to win a Grand Slam title to Elena Rybakina a little more than six months ago is now coming rather naturally.

And if she can win one more match, she will add a championship at the Australian Open to the one she collected at Wimbledon.

Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan, reached her second final in a span of three major tournaments by beating Victoria Azarenka 7-6 (4), 6-3 at Melbourne Park on Thursday, signaling a rapid rise toward the top of tennis.

“Everything was new at Wimbledon,” Rybakina said after hitting nine aces in the semifinals to raise her tournament-leading total to 44. “Now I more or less understand what to expect.”

That could come in handy Saturday, when she will face No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus. Sabalenka reached her first Grand Slam title match at age 24 by beating unseeded Magda Linette 7-6 (1), 6-2 in Thursday’s second semifinal.

Sabalenka improved to 10-0 in 2023, winning all 20 sets she has contested this season.

More importantly, the victory over Linette gave Sabalenka her first taste of success in a Slam semi after going 0-3 at that stage until now, losing each previous attempt by a 6-4 score in the third set.

Rybakina and Sabalenka employ a somewhat similar brand of tennis, relying on big serves and big hitting at the baseline. Sabalenka is far less cautious, though, and her penchant for high-risk, high-reward play was evident against Linette, who had never before been past the third round in 29 appearances at majors.

Sabalenka finished with a whopping 33-9 edge in winners, but also compiled more unforced errors – including a trio that led to a break at love by Linette in the opening game.

The key to both semifinals turned out to be a first-set tiebreaker. Azarenka lost the mark on her strokes, for the most part, making things smoother for Rybakina, while Sabalenka raced to a 6-0 lead in hers. It wasn’t the case that each and every shot Sabalenka hit landed right on a line, but it must have seemed that way to Linette.

“In the tiebreaker, I really found my rhythm,” Sabalenka said. “Started trusting myself. Started going for my shots.”

Rybakina’s win over Azarenka, the champion at Melbourne Park in 2012 and 2013, added to what already was an impressive run through a string of top opponents. She also beat No. 1 Iga Swiatek and No. 17 Jelena Ostapenko – both owners of major titles – and 2022 Australian Open runner-up Danielle Collins.

“For sure, they’re very experienced players,” said Rybakina, whose parents and sister have been in town throughout the Australian Open. “I knew that I have to focus on every point.”

She delivered serves at up to 117 mph (189 kph) and stinging groundstrokes that she used to close points seemingly at will on Thursday. Her performance was particularly noteworthy against a returner and defender as established on hard courts as Azarenka, a former No. 1 and a three-time runner-up at the U.S. Open.

“Kind of hard to digest,” Azarenka said. “Obviously, I had quite a few chances that I gave myself.”

Rybakina is just 23, 10 years younger than Azarenka, and the future sure looks bright at the moment.

Rybakina might be seeded just 22nd in Melbourne, and ranked just 25th, but those numbers are rather misleading and not indicative at all of her talent and form. She did not get the usual bump from her title last July at Wimbledon, where zero rankings points were awarded after the All England Club banned players from Russia and Belarus because of the invasion of Ukraine.

Rybakina was born in Moscow; she switched to Kazakhstan in 2018, when that country offered to fund her tennis career.

It was breezy and chilly at Rod Laver Arena from the start of Rybakina vs. Azarenka, with the temperature dipping below 70 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius).

That had a role in the way the first set was as much of a seesaw as can be, with each player seeming to gain the upper hand – and then ceding it just as quickly. Both found the conditions slowed down the tennis balls.

“Kind of misjudged a lot of balls,” Azarenka said.

Rybakina encountered similar issues and her occasional inconsistency was encapsulated by the very first game. She began, inauspiciously enough, with a double-fault, before holding with the help of three aces.

Azarenka nosed ahead by breaking for a 3-2 lead on a leaping, full-extension volley winner with both women at the net. Rybakina, though, broke right back, and then once more to go up 5-3.

Azarenka saved a set point at 5-3 with a terrific down-the-line forehand passing shot, wound up taking the game with a backhand she accented with a shout of “Let’s go!”

A mistake-filled tiebreaker ended with Azarenka pushing a forehand wide to cap an 11-shot exchange, and the set belonged to Rybakina. She broke at love for a 2-1 lead in the second, and while they competed for another 25 minutes, the outcome was never really much in doubt.

Sure, Rybakina again faltered for a bit while trying to serve out the victory at 5-2. No one expected Azarenka to go quietly. But one last break, aided by a double-fault from Azarenka, allowed Rybakina to take another step toward another trophy.

“Ready,” she said, “to give everything I have left.”

Paul, McDonald on US Davis Cup team; Nainkin interim captain

us davis cup
Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Australian Open semifinalist Tommy Paul and the player who eliminated Rafael Nadal at Melbourne Park, Mackenzie McDonald, are among the players picked by interim captain David Nainkin for the U.S. Davis Cup team’s matches at Uzbekistan next week.

Nainkin’s appointment was announced Friday, three weeks after Mardy Fish’s tenure as captain ended.

Nainkin has been with the U.S. Tennis Association since 2004. He will be assisted against Uzbekistan by Dean Goldfine, who coached 20-year-old Ben Shelton during his quarterfinal run at the Australian Open.

Paul beat Shelton in that round before losing to Novak Djokovic on Friday night.

The other members of the U.S. roster are Denis Kudla, Rajeev Ram and Austin Krajicek. Kudla replaces Jenson Brooksby on the team.

The matches will be played on indoor hard courts on Feb. 3-4.