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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.”

Zverev beats Djokovic to win ATP Finals title

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LONDON — Alexander Zverev upset Novak Djokovic to claim the biggest title of his career with a 6-4, 6-3 victory at the ATP Finals on Sunday.

The 21-year-old Zverev became the youngest champion of the season-ending event since Djokovic claimed the first of his five titles a decade ago, and the first from Germany since 1995.

Top-ranked Djokovic was attempting to tie Roger Federer’s record of six titles but followed the same path as the Swiss great, who lost to Zverev in the semifinals at the O2 Arena.

Djokovic’s serve hadn’t been broken all tournament until the final. Zverev did it once in the first set and three times in the second, completing the victory with a spectacular backhand winner up the line.

Both players began the match in the same form that had seen them earn straight-sets semifinal victories a day earlier, with few points going against the server.

It was Djokovic, who had lost just two of his previous 37 matches, who began to feel the pressure as consecutive forehand errors gave Zverev a chance to serve out the opening set at 5-4.

Fans gave Zverev a huge ovation as he stepped up to serve, and it appeared to inspire him. Three straight aces brought up three set points, the second of which he took when Djokovic sent another forehand long.

Zverev even began to outlast Djokovic in longer rallies, an area of the game the 14-time Grand Slam champion usually dominates. A 26-shot duel brought up another break point in the opening game of the second set and, although Djokovic saved it, Zverev won another lengthy exchange moments later with a forehand winner to go 1-0 up.

With the biggest win of his career in sight, Zverev began to show some nerves. Although he is the only active player outside of the Big Four of Djokovic, Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray to possess three or more Masters titles, the young German has only reached one Grand Slam quarterfinal.

Two double faults and two backhand errors gifted Djokovic an immediate break back, but Zverev quickly refocused to win a 28-shot rally on his way to breaking in the following game.

From there he remained solid on serve, before ending with a flourish. Having been pushed wide, a backhand winner on the run drifted past the helpless Djokovic.

Zverev sunk to the ground in tears as Djokovic sportingly crossed the net to embrace the player who will now be considered among the favorites to end the Serb’s run of two consecutive Grand Slam victories in Australia in two months’ time.

Earlier, American pair Mike Bryan and Jack Sock saved a match point in the deciding tiebreaker to beat Pierre-Hughes Herbert and Nicolas Mahut 5-7, 6-1, 13-11 for their first ATP Finals doubles title together.

Having failed to take advantage of five championship points during the first-to-10 match tiebreaker, Bryan and Sock then had to save one against their French opponents before finally closing out victory.

“It was a hell of a match,” Bryan said.

The 40-year-old Bryan has now won the tournament five times. He won four times with his usual partner – and brother – Bob, who has been out with an injured hip since May.

Sock and Bryan have dominated since teaming up, winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open before finishing their season in style in London.

“It’s been a hell of a ride,” Bryan said. “This could be our last hoorah because Bob’s training back in Florida.”

Bryan, Sock win ATP Finals doubles title

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LONDON — American pair Mike Bryan and Jack Sock saved a match point in the deciding tiebreaker to beat Pierre-Hughes Herbert and Nicolas Mahut 5-7, 6-1, 13-11 for their first ATP Finals doubles title together on Sunday.

Having failed to take advantage of five championship points during the first-to-10 match tiebreaker, Bryan and Sock then had to save one against their French opponents before finally closing out victory at the O2 Arena.

“It was a hell of a match,” Bryan said.

The 40-year-old Bryan has now won the season-ending tournament five times. He won four times with his usual partner – and brother – Bob, who has been out with an injured hip since May.

Sock and Bryan have dominated since teaming up, winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open before finishing their season in style in London.

“It’s been a hell of a ride,” Bryan said. “This could be our last hoorah because Bob’s training back in Florida.”

After reaching the singles semifinals last year, Sock has endured a torrid season in that format, falling outside the top-100 ranked players. However, he became the first American since John McEnroe to add a doubles final appearance at the tournament to his last-four singles showing.

“This is special because it was a pretty bad year in singles,” Sock said. “This makes up for some of the low moments I’ve had.”

The French duo’s season is not over yet. Herbert and Mahut are part of their nation’s squad for the Davis Cup final against Croatia, which starts in Lille on Friday.