Tennis Prose



Osaka’s Unique Journey To World No. 1

Osaka WM17 (4) (36143097936).jpg

By Scoop Malinowski

Naomi Osaka is the first known Japanese/Haitian professional tennis player and her ethnicity is not the only unique aspect of her character.

The Osaka Odyssey in tennis began in Long Island, New York. Naomi’s parents met in Hokkaido, Japan when her dad Leonard Francois was visiting Japan as a college student. Tamaki gave birth first to older sister Mari, born in April 1996, and then Naomi, born in October 1997. The family moved to Long Island in 2000 to live with Leonard’s parents. Tennis became a family activity. Naomi played dozens of USTA Eastern tournaments from 2004-2007, amassing an ordinary record. Eventually the clan moved to Pembroke Pines, Florida and trained there with Bill Adams when Naomi was 9 in 2007.

The emphasis was first put on Mari, who reached a career WTA high ranking last summer of 280 (she is now ranked 334).

“My first memory was the way Naomi ran. She was about 10 years old,” remembers Adams, who still runs an academy in Miramar, FL. “And when she worked with us, I really thought she wasn’t that interested in tennis. As a matter of fact, a lot of attention was paid to her sister Mari. And one day we were running relays for fitness, and the way she ran, the way she took off, I stopped and turned. I looked at her. I said to her dad Max – that’s her nickname for him – I said, Max, she could be a really good player. I’ve never seen anybody, a girl, move like that. To this day, watching her, her movement, that’s her greatest defense and her greatest offense. She moves exceptionally well.”

Adams still is not sure how Naomi Osaka and her sister ended up at his academy. “They were living in New York. And they decided to move to Florida for tennis. And I still don’t know who told her to come to Bill Adams. But they came straight here. We were at CB Smith Park. And I worked out a deal. Her dad was assisting me. And we were teaching them. I still don’t know who sent them.”

Osaka was not a standout junior from Elmont, Long Island. Her first USTA tournament was a 10s in 2004 when she was six, she lost 60 61 to Katrine Steffensen. Naomi played 21 tournaments in 2004, winning only eight matches.

2005 was not much better for Naomi. She played 27 tournaments in the USTA Eastern section and recorded a 20-30 record.

After moving to Florida, in February or March 2007, the family persevered with their quest…more USTA Florida tournaments. Naomi got better. She lost to Sofia Kenin in the 12s final of the National Public Parks in August 2007, 63 61, she was still just 9.

Osaka beat the phenom Kenin in a 12s final the next May 64 63 (2008). She lost to Katie Boulter in a 16s final in 2009, 64 46 62.

Osaka continued to play USTA Woman’s Opens at 13 and 14 but she bypassed all junior ITF tournaments, going straight to ITF pro events. The first one was just after Naomi turned 14 in Montego Bay, Jamaica in October 2011, in a $10,000, where Osaka lost first round of qualifying to American Anamika Bhargava 63 64.

Osaka kept trying. At a Clearwater $25,000 the next March, Ani Majicika beat her 64 60. But Osaka qualified in doubles 10-8 in the third with her sister and got a chance to play against Alexa Glatch and Grace Min in main draw. They lost 76 64. Glatch, was a big name player, she had played Serena Williams three years earlier in 2009 in US Open and Miami Open, losing 64 61 and 62 63.

Osaka won qualifying round matches in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Mississippi, and South Carolina tournaments but failed to reach the main draws until July in Evansville where she won three Q rounds and in her first ITF main draw match she beat Mary Joanna Smith 62 57 60 before losing to Mallory Burdette 60 61.

In September she made the semis of Amelia Island $10,000, before losing to her sister in straight sets.

The first name player she beat was in Innisbrook in January 2013, she topped Nicole Melichar 76 64 in qualies. Melichar went on to win a Wimbledon doubles crown.

In April that same year in Pelham, Alabama, Osaka beat Belinda Bencic 63 63 before losing to Monica Puig 64 64. Now she was competing with some of the big name prospects.

Naomi never won any ITF tournaments but she won her share of matches to rise up the rankings. Her first Grand Slam major was the qualifying at US Open in 2015, she beat Katarina Stewart 76 76 but lost to Joanna Konta 64 64.

At the 2016 AO, she qualified and won her first two matches of main draw, beating Donna Vekic 63 62 and Elina Svitolina, her ITF pro circuit rival, 64 64, before falling to Vika Azarenka 61 61.

At 2016 Roland Garros she entered main draw and beat Jelena Ostapenko in the first round 64 75, then Mirjana Lucic Baroni in straight sets before losing to Simona Halep 63 in the third.

Osaka missed Wimbledon but at US Open she beat Coco Vandeweghe 64 in the third and Ying Ying Duan before losing to Madison Keys 76 in the third.

Two years later in 2018 Osaka would win her first pro tournament in Indian Wells, defeating Daria Kasatkina in the final. She beat Serena Williams in Miami Open and then finally, her first major title would come just a few miles from where the journey began – at the US Open in Queens, NY, besting Serena Williams in straight sets. Osaka then added the Australian Open this year by defeating Petra Kvitova in three sets.

Recalling his memories of Osaka at age 12 and how she has evolved into the world no. 1 player, Adams ponders the question about if he is surprised by her remarkable success?

“Yes and no,” he replies in his cramped office next to the pro shot at the small public facility he has operated from for decades. “I’m surprised because I don’t think at the time she had very deep interest in tennis. And I could be wrong. Maybe it was because most of the emphasis was put on her sister Mari. So maybe that concealed the fact that she really had a passion for it. No, I’m not surprised, because of the way she moved. I thought that was exceptional. If she could move like that on a tennis court, you can withstand any onslaught.”

Without playing any ITF juniors and not winning any ITF pro circuit events, 21 year old Naomi withstood all onslaughts, mistakes, ups and downs and heartbreaks and his now the best player in the world.

It’s the crazy ones who change the world…


  • Bergie · March 5, 2019 at 10:22 am

    Scoop , I love reading stories and articles like this… Testimonials from fathers and the development of the athletes and how they evolve to where they are today… Great read as usual… I can’t wait to hit the ball after reading this … Bergie

  • catherine · March 5, 2019 at 12:45 pm

    Is Naomi the ‘best player in the world’ ? I think it’s very difficult to claim that for any woman at the moment. Let’s just say she’s ranked No 1.

    And is she ‘crazy’ ? Doesn’t strike me that way.

  • Scoop Malinowski · March 5, 2019 at 1:11 pm

    Thanks Bergie. I was surprised at her USTA results as a kid, not very special at all. Lots of losses to players who didn’t amount to any renown. She started so young and never stopped despite all the losses. I was told she played in a way in the beginning, that didn’t matter where the ball went, just hit the heck out of it. Eventually the shots began to go in more. 21 tournaments in a year at age 6-7 is an awful lot. No ITF junior events is a curious decision. But the plan has worked, at least for one of the Osaka sisters.

  • Scoop Malinowski · March 5, 2019 at 1:13 pm

    hartt, Michal Llodra told me and repeatedly insisted that “Federer is crazy but he has everybody fooled.” Llodra knows Federer since juniors, the anecdote is mentioned in Facing Federer though Llodra refused to disclose any details out of respect. So crazy can look normal on the outside, at least according to Llodra. For Osaka to believe she could be the best player in the world when she never won an ITF pro circuit title, is a crazy idea.

  • Scoop Malinowski · March 5, 2019 at 1:44 pm

    Catherine, Osaka has won the last two majors and is ranked 1. She is on the verge of becoming dominant.

  • catherine · March 5, 2019 at 3:04 pm

    Scoop – Naomi, like other talented players before her, obviously had the confidence and belief to skip junior/ITF events and aim straight for the top. Anything else would have been a waste of her time. And that decision turned out to be justified. Superior players don’t need ITF or junior titles. I suspect Serena thinks she’s still the best player in the world. So it’s all going to be interesting. The others are getting to know more about Naomi and they won’t be giving her matches.

    (I think you meant me instead of hartt in your comment about craziness. I wouldn’t use the word at all actually, referring to people, but I know American usage is different)

  • Scoop Malinowski · March 5, 2019 at 3:08 pm

    Catherine, As far as I know, most successful pros played the ITF junior circuit and the junior majors, Federer sure did. Hewitt did. Serena did not. Collins did not. I think any player or any athlete who gets the idea in their head as a kid to be the best in the world has to be a little different or slightly crazy. Seal sang a very good song called “Crazy.” My favorite Seal song.

  • catherine · March 6, 2019 at 2:17 am

    Depends how far back you go – the ITF events weren’t around when past top players were coming up and in many cases they would have leap-frogged them. Chris played the USO when she still in high school eg – Steffi didn’t stay in juniors, Martina didn’t, simply would have been no point. Going further back, BJK played juniors but didn’t win any junior titles.

    I don’t know who Seal are 🙂

  • Scoop Malinowski · March 6, 2019 at 7:14 am

    Martina did play juniors. I played with a Cuban guy who was a top junior in Cuba and he said he played some kind of junior event against Martina in mixed when she was a teenager.

  • catherine · March 6, 2019 at 8:12 am

    That was most likely when Martina was still in Czecho – the Russia/Cuba/Czechoslovakia connection there. She probably had no choice.

  • Hartt · March 6, 2019 at 12:28 pm

    Milos won the Tiebreak Tens and received a nice cheque for $150,000. The event raised over $500,000 for 4 local charities.

    Even though it is an exhibition he still had to play some good tennis to win against Monfils, Cilic and Wawrinka. Milos served well, as you’d expect, but his FHs and volleys were working as well. And he was moving well.

    He announced he has just started working with Santoro as coach.

  • Scoop Malinowski · March 6, 2019 at 12:40 pm

    Good win for Raonic, he needed this win. He may set the record for most coaches hired in his career, He has to be over ten by now. Guga Kuerten and Youzhny used exactly one coach for their entire careers. Raonic has used three in a single year. Raonic using Santoro is intriguing as Santoro played completely opposite of Raonic, hope he can add some surprises and new elements to Raonic’s arsenal, surely he will if Raonic listens. Very intrigued by this new combination of totally different play styles. What’s next, Nadal hiring Sampras as his coach? Or Osaka hiring Rios?

  • Chazz · March 6, 2019 at 1:02 pm

    Indian Wells:

    The most bizarre, opposite personality doubles team goes to…Taylor Fritz/Nick Kyrgios. Also, Tsitsipas and Shapo playing with guys I never even heard of.

  • Scoop Malinowski · March 6, 2019 at 5:52 pm

    Chazz, I think Nick is turning into a father figure type player, he likes taking young players under his wing. Andy Murray did the same thing with young Nick and Kokkinakis. Nick is also very close with Stefan Kozlov, they call each other brothers. Nick is a very well liked player, very popular with other players, fans, kids and some of the media. He’s very down to earth, approachable, engaging, funny, friendly. I just heard Federer barely talks to anyone in the locker room, but I can’t confirm this is true, but the source is an insider as he is a friend of a top 15 player. I can really see Nick becoming like Agassi did, a saintly positive figure after he sheds his young punk persona which was never really that bad compared to young Agassi who was a handful.

  • Hartt · March 6, 2019 at 7:17 pm

    Bianca Andreescu just won a long, tough match against Irina Begu. The match lasted over 2 hours, 20 minutes. Bianca got off to a terrible start, and Irina was serving for the first set at 5-2. But Bianca is a fighter, and she got the set to a TB, which Begu won. But Bianca won the next 2 sets, 6-3, 6-3. This was her first IW main draw, so an important win for the 18-year-old.

  • Scoop Malinowski · March 7, 2019 at 8:45 am

    Andreescu is a winning machine, she has won over 20 matches already in 2019. Just last November she lost a set to Osaka’s older sister Mari in an ITF, since then she’s been on a rampage. Andreescu is shooting straight to the top.

  • Hartt · March 7, 2019 at 1:28 pm

    Bianca, in addition to her tennis skills, is a terrific competitor, one of those fighters who never give up. As you’ve probably guessed, I am super excited about her. One concern is her ongoing back problems, but if she can deal with that there is no reason why she can’t be a top player.



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