“I think the amount of attention that I get is kind of ridiculous,” Naomi Osaka says within the first five minutes of a recent Netflix documentary. “No one prepares you for that.”
The bright spotlight returned to the world’s highest-paid female athlete today when she lit the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. She takes the court for the first time in nearly two months this weekend, facing China’s Saisai Zheng in the opening round of the Olympic tennis tournament. Her match—originally scheduled for Saturday morning, Tokyo time—was abruptly pushed to Sunday, with speculation it allowed her some rest after the opening ceremony duties.
Osaka’s Olympic moment has been building for three years since she burst onto the global scene with her 2018 U.S. Open victory over Serena Williams. She then opted to permanently represent Japan in competition after her 21st birthday (Osaka previously held dual Japanese and American citizenship.)
“For Naomi, the Olympics is the pinnacle of sports, and she has immense pride in being able to participate in her home country,” said Stuart Duguid, her IMG agent.
Duguid told Sportico that Osaka would speak directly to the media in Tokyo for the first time since May, when she refused to participate in press conferences at the French Open, citing their impact on her mental health. When she ultimately withdrew before her second-round match at Roland-Garros, she received strong support from her sponsors.
Osaka skipped Wimbledon also but has stayed in the news with the launch of an Osaka Barbie doll, the Netflix doc and a quartet of magazine covers for Sports Illustrated, Time, Vogue Japan and Vogue Hong Kong.
“There will be another French Open and Wimbledon, but there will never be an Olympics again in Tokyo during her playing career,” said Rick Burton, a sports management professor at Syracuse University and former CMO of the U.S. Olympic Committee. “This is her magic moment.”
The Osaka brand has exploded over the past three years, while she racked up four Grand Slam titles and millions of social media followers. She has two dozen endorsement partners that helped her earn an estimated $50 million off the court in the 12 months ending May 31. The endorsement tally was more than any athlete on the planet outside of Roger Federer, LeBron James and Tiger Woods (Conor McGregor earned $180 million outside the Octagon through the sale of his Proper No. 12 whiskey brand).
The Olympics and Osaka’s Japanese heritage—she was born in Japan to a Haitian father and Japanese mother and moved to the U.S. at age three—were critical components of that early brand-building with a half-dozen Japanese companies in her endorsement portfolio. She was the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam singles title and the first and only Asian tennis player, male or female, to be ranked No. 1 in the world.
“It was a prudent move by Naomi’s management team to embrace what Japan could do for them with some of the world’s largest sponsors located there,” said Burton. “It set her up for a long endorsement career with global Japanese brands.”
Yet, Osaka’s profile has skyrocketed even higher over the past year, as she’s become a voice for social injustice and mental health, while winning the U.S. Open and Australian Open. Her brand has moved beyond the Tokyo Games.
“When the Olympic cycle started five years ago, we were definitely assessing closely where the Games would fit within our business strategy,” IMG’s Duguid said. “But candidly, since then she has become transformative beyond just sports and a single event. So while we treasure the Games so much and have a few partners that are official sponsors, it’s not necessarily at the core of her strategy or portfolio.”
Osaka added Google, Louis Vuitton, Sweetgreen, Workday, Levi’s and more to her deep roster of sponsors over the past year.
Tennis was an original Olympic event in 1896 before going away after the 1924 Games. It was re-introduced in 1988. Japan won a pair of silver medals in tennis during the original run of the sport, yet the host nation has only won a single bronze over the past 30-plus years.
Osaka is the slight favorite over Australia’s Ashleigh Barty to capture gold. Osaka has won four of the last six Grand Slams on hard courts, the surface in Japan; her record is a dominant 23-1 on the surface since August.
“These Games have been fraught with trouble, and I’m sure the Japanese people are feeling beat up by everything going on,” said Burton. “Osaka has that potential to provide a great heroic moment.”