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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.”

Thiem edges Federer to win Indian Wells title

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Dominic Thiem edged error-prone Roger Federer 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 to win the BNP Paribas Open on Sunday, denying Federer a record sixth title in the desert.

Thiem trailed 4-3 and 5-4 in the third set before breaking Federer with a forehand winner to go up 6-5. Thiem served out the two-hour match that ended with another error from Federer, a forehand dumped into the net.

Federer was in the final for the third straight year and lost for the second year in a row. He was beaten in a third-set tiebreaker by Juan Martin del Potro last year. Federer won his 100th career title in Dubai recently.

Thiem had lost in his previous two ATP Masters 1000 finals. But the 25-year-old Austrian’s solid serve held up against Federer as it had throughout the tournament.

Thiem was broken just four times out of 61 service games in the tournament. He didn’t lose serve during his semifinal win over Milos Raonic, facing only one break point in that match.

Canadian teenager Bianca Andreescu upset Angelique Kerber 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 to win the women’s title.

Thiem and Andreescu earned $1.3 million each.

Federer and Thiem had split their four previous meetings, but Federer had won both of their hard-court matches without dropping a set.

He cruised through the first set in 36 minutes while getting broken for just the second time during his run to his ninth appearance in the final. But Federer broke back in the next game and served out the set.

Thiem earned the only break of the second set in the fourth game, going up 3-1. Federer won just two more games in the set.

Both players were on serve in the third set until Thiem collected the only break. Federer tried consecutive drop shots that Thiem retrieved for crosscourt forehand winners before the Austrian hit a winning forehand to lead 6-5.

“He did very well when he got up to the ball, stayed calm, made the shot,” Federer said.

Federer won just one point on Thiem’s serve in the final game.

“Just came up against somebody who was on the day a bit better when it really mattered,” Federer said. “I have been in these positions so many times that I get over it very quickly.”

Federer advanced to the final after rival Rafael Nadal withdrew before their semifinal match because of knee pain. Thiem also benefited from a walkover, reaching the semis when Gael Monfils withdrew with an Achilles injury.

Andreescu, an 18-year-old Canadian, became the first wild-card winner and second-youngest to claim the title in tournament history.

“The fricking champion of Indian Wells,” Andreescu said. “It’s crazy.”

She overcame nerves, fatigue, arm and leg issues in the final set to earn the first title of her fledgling career.

Andreescu won on her fourth match point when Kerber netted a backhand. She broke Kerber three times in the third set, rallying from a 3-2 deficit to take four of the final five games.

Andreescu dropped her racket near the baseline and fell on her back, her legs in the air as she covered her face in disbelief. After getting up and exchanging kisses with Kerber, the teen bent down and kissed the sunbaked hard court and dropped to her back again, her arms and legs splayed, before grabbing her head.

“This moment has become a reality so it’s really, really crazy,” Andreescu told the crowd before speaking a bit of Romanian.

Born in Canada, she later moved with her parents to Romania, where she first started playing tennis.

Kerber was the last of five seeded players that Andreescu knocked off in her seven matches.

“When she had the chances, she just go for it,” Kerber said.

The Canadian followed in the footsteps of Naomi Osaka, who was a little-known 20-year-old when she won the title last year. Osaka used it as a springboard to win titles at the U.S. and Australian opens while ascending to the No. 1 ranking in January.

“No pressure,” Andreescu said, joking.

She’s projected to rise 36 spots to No. 24 in the WTA Tour rankings on Monday.

Kerber, ranked eighth, remains without a title since winning Wimbledon last year.

She was a crowd favorite, with fans waving Canadian flags and chanting “Let’s go, Bianca! Let’s go” in the second set.

They clearly enjoyed Andreescu’s fearless style of play. She alternately outpunched opponents from the baseline, tossed up high-arching shots and unleashed well-time drop shots – usually during the same point.

A smiling Andreescu was quick to correct a reporter.

“It’s not moonballing,” she said. “It’s just hitting heavy to her backhand with more spin. We’re not under 12 here.”

Her most dominant win during the 12-day tournament came in the quarterfinals, a 6-0, 6-1 rout of two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza. In all, the teen knocked out four Top 20 players.

Leading 2-1 in the third, Andreescu took a medical timeout and had a trainer massage her tight right shoulder and arm.

Kerber won the next two games, breaking Andreescu to go up 3-2.

Appearing tired and nervous, Andreescu called for her coach, who urged her to make Kerber play every point.

She did just that.

Andreescu won the next three games, ripping off powerful forehands while winning nine straight points during one stretch, including a 40-love service game.

“I just fought till the end because physically I wasn’t feeling too well,” she said.

The trainer reappeared again to ice Andreescu’s cramping legs.

The teen had three match points on her serve before trying one of her patented drop shots. Kerber raced to get it and sent a forehand down the line to get to deuce.

The German led 40-add on Andreescu’s forehand error before the teen made a low-percentage attempt at a drop shot. It landed in the net, leaving Kerber trailing 5-4.

“At the end I was not able to take my chances, but she did,” Kerber said.

Andreescu bounced back, putting away a smash to set up her fourth match point before Kerber’s backhand error ended it after 2 hours and 18 minutes.

Andreescu upsets Kerber to win Indian Wells

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Bianca Andreescu upset three-time major champion Angelique Kerber 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 to win the BNP Paribas Open on Sunday, becoming at age 18 the first wild-card winner in tournament history.

The Canadian overcame nerves, arm and leg issues in the final set to earn the first title of her fledgling career.

Roger Federer chased a record sixth title in the desert against Dominic Thiem in the men’s final later.

Andreescu won on her fourth match point when Kerber netted a backhand. She broke Kerber three times in the third set, rallying from a 3-2 deficit to take four of the final five games.

Andreescu dropped her racket near the baseline and fell on her back, her legs in the air as she covered her face in disbelief. After getting up and exchanging kisses with Kerber, the teen bent down and kissed the sunbaked hard court and dropped to her back again, her arms and legs splayed, before grabbing her head.

“This moment has become a reality so it’s really, really crazy,” Andreescu told the crowd before speaking a bit of Romanian.

Born in Canada, she later moved with her parents to Romania, where she first started playing tennis.

Kerber was the last of five seeded players that Andreescu knocked off in her seven matches.

The Canadian followed in the footsteps of Naomi Osaka, who was a little-known 20-year-old when she won the title last year. Osaka used it as a springboard to win titles at the U.S. and Australian opens while ascending to the No. 1 ranking in January.

Kerber, ranked eighth, remains without a title since winning Wimbledon last year.

Andreescu is projected to rise 36 spots to No. 24 in the WTA Tour rankings on Monday.

She was a crowd favorite, with fans waving Canadian flags and chanting “Let’s go, Bianca! Let’s go” in the second set.

They clearly enjoyed Andreescu’s fearless style of play. She alternately outpunched opponents from the baseline, tossed up moonballs and unleashed well-time drop shots – usually during the same point.

Her most dominant win during the 12-day tournament came in the quarterfinals, a 6-0, 6-1 rout of two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza. In all, the teen knocked out four Top-20 players.

Leading 2-1 in the third, Andreescu took a medical timeout and had a trainer massage her right shoulder and arm.

Kerber won the next two games, breaking Andreescu to go up 3-2.

Appearing tired and nervous, Andreescu called for her coach, who urged her to make Kerber play every point.

She did just that.

Andreescu won the next three games, ripping off powerful forehands while winning nine straight points during one stretch, including a 40-love service game.

“When she had the chances, she just go for it,” Kerber said. “She was still moving good and hitting the balls very fast.”

The trainer reappeared again to ice Andreescu’s legs.

The teen had three match points on her serve before trying one of her patented drop shots. Kerber raced to get it and sent a forehand down the line to get to deuce. The German led 40-add on Andreescu’s forehand error before the teen made a low-percentage attempt at a drop shot. It landed in the net, leaving Kerber trailing 5-4.

“At the end I was not able to take my chances, but she did,” Kerber said.

Andreescu bounced back, putting away a smash to set up her fourth match point before Kerber’s backhand error ended it after 2 hours and 18 minutes.