The sadness of Naomi Osaka and the questions we should ask about it

Jonathan Liew

When Naomi Osaka struggles to get to sleep at night, in one of the dozens of anonymous beds in one of the dozens of anonymous hotels in one of the dozens of anonymous cities that she makes her temporary home during an average year on tour, she puts on a playlist. Osaka listens to plenty of music, and curates her playlists according to mood: songs to pump her up before matches, songs to wind down and relax. The one she uses to help her get to sleep is called, simply, “Sad”.

Sadness seems to come easily to Osaka. She feels sadness when she recalls her summer holidays as a child in Florida, slogging away on the tennis court while the other kids were splashing around in the pool. Defeats and setbacks seem to bring her out in a very particular kind of sadness, the sort only the true perfectionist can really grasp. “I could hit one hundred balls right,” she said at a press conference earlier this month, “and the one ball that I hit wrong is the thing that I think about the entire time.”

And as she prepares to return to New York to defend her US Open title as the top seed and the world No 1, even the memory of her greatest triumph is wrapped up in a certain regret: the sadness of lifting a trophy to the sound of a hostile crowd, resentful not of Osaka but of the injustice visited upon Serena Williams, her beaten opponent. As the boos rained down on Arthur Ashe Court, the tears trickled down Osaka’s face, perhaps the most painful image from this strangest of finals.

Perhaps it’s unfair to say that Osaka exudes sadness. She is, after all, capable of generating great joy too, both on the court and off. Her interviews are often laced with silly jokes and wicked black humour. But very often, you feel the sadness and the laughter are coming from the same place, the dissonant bittersweetness of a young woman still processing the seismic life changes of the last 18 months. “Welcome to the trash can,” she said to her new coach Jermaine Jenkins shortly after they started working together earlier this year: partly as a joke and partly, you suspect, as an acerbic warning.

It’s been a strange year. Osaka’s stunning triumph in New York set off a chain reaction over which she had little to no control. From being just another face on tour, Osaka suddenly found herself in relentless demand. People would stop her when she was out shopping and ask for photos. Huge crowds would turn out just to watch her practise. Occasionally, she made the mistake of reading some of her own press: an experience she described as “literally traumatising”. And yet on the court, things were going swimmingly: a second Grand Slam title in Melbourne in January, the world No 1 ranking, a supremacy that at times, as she swept shell-shocked opponents off the court, verged on dominance.

For a naturally introverted 21-year-old with just three full years on the WTA Tour, this was all a lot to deal with. And yet this isn’t a simple time-worn tale of a young athlete struggling with her new fame. From the moment she emerged, Osaka was always earmarked for more than just sporting success. Under no circumstances would she be just another very good tennis player. From the very start, Osaka was made to bear more, even if that meant imprisoning her in the hopes and impulses of others.

As the first Asian woman to top the world rankings, she would represent the aspirations of a continent. As a prominent black athlete in Trump’s America, she would be a bridge between worlds, an icon and leader. As a rising star in a sport whose biggest draws are all well into their 30s, she would mark the passing of the torch, the shock of the new. As a Japanese athlete in the run-up to Tokyo 2020, she would be the face of a home Olympics.

Of course, whenever a new cultural phenomenon emerges, the corporate sphere demands its slice. And no sooner had the ink had dried on her US Open’s winner’s cheque than the brands were circling, desperate to attach themselves to Osaka’s arresting feel-good tale, her box-office talent, her highly marketable identity. Even now, you still hear her described in vaguely dehumanising terms by sports marketing experts and business executives, giddy at the myriad of ways Osaka’s heritage can be milked for profit. Or, as her agent Stuart Duguid so delicately put it: “She’s from Japan, with a multicultural background from Haiti and the United States. So she has the full package.”

At the time of writing, it’s a “package” being used to sell sportswear, beauty products, air travel, watches, instant noodles, and plenty else besides. The week after she won at Flushing Meadow, she was taking a long-haul flight to Yokohama to make an appearance at the Nissan factory, where she was unveiled as a new brand ambassador. “Growing up, my dad drove a Nissan,” Osaka told the waiting press in her best Corporatese. “So being able to be a brand ambassador now, it feels like I’ve come full circle.”

What sort of personal toll did all of these new demands and expectations extract on Osaka - not Brand Osaka, but Naomi Osaka the 21-year-old woman? We can’t really say for sure. What we can say is that over the course of 2019, she began to feel sadder. She split with her coach Sascha Bajin at the start of the year. She lost, surprisingly, in the third round of the French Open. A few weeks later, playing on Centre Court in the first round of Wimbledon, she realised she would “rather be anywhere else”. After losing to the unseeded Yulia Putintseva, she had to cut her press conference short because she was close to tears.

Osaka's greatest triumph feels a long time ago (Getty)

Even in her good moments, that sadness is never far from the surface. In a long and brutally frank Twitter post earlier this month, she opened up on what she described as “the worst months of my life”. She admitted that she “hadn’t had fun playing tennis since Australia”. And of course, she threw in plenty of jokes. “I’ll leave this here just in case you feel like reading a book lol,” she wrote by way of introduction.

What makes all of this so jarringly interesting is that elite sport so rarely deals in this sort of humming, low-flying sadness. Tragedy, yes: both real and competitive. Misery, frustration, longing, fine. And in recent years, the evolving conversation about mental health has created an environment in which athletes are allowed to admit to suffering. But as a drama, sport still tends towards these big, operatic emotions. The idea that a competitor may not necessarily be suicidal or inconsolable or angry or vengeful, but simply quite sad, quite often, remains largely unaddressed.

So here’s the question. How does the apparatus of Big Sport - this business of dollars and cents and marketing campaigns and positive mantras and social media armies - process a sadness like Osaka’s? Does it look the other way, as brands are wont to do? Does it find a way of integrating the sadness into the spiel? Or does it simply tell her to run a warm bath, get a good night’s sleep and make sure she’s at InstaSnack HQ for 8.30 sharp to sign promotional T-shirts?

In large part, these are questions for the people around her, and by Osaka’s own admission, they appear to have her best interests at heart. In part, it’s a question for Osaka herself, and one to which, with a maturity beyond her years, she appears to have devoted a good deal of thought.

But in a way, it’s also a question for the rest of us too. From the other side of a television or computer screen, it’s sometimes hard to reconcile ourselves with the idea that we too have a duty of care to the women and men in whom we invest our time. To listen and to empathise, to at least try to see the world from their perspective. And above all to remember that, as much as we may care, the only happiness they ultimately owe is to themselves.