Photo: Wai Lin Tse (Allure)
She may not have managed another Grand Slam at the French Open or Wimbledon (that Australian Open, though), but Naomi Osaka is still a tennis phenom on the rise—with a rising profile that now includes the cover of Allure’s August issue. It’s the Japanese-Haitian athlete’s first American fashion magazine cover, and while I personally wish we’d gotten to see a bit more of the adorable face hidden behind her now-trademark mane of burnished natural curls, it’s somehow in line with her image, since, as the cover story notes, Osaka “remains something of an enigma.”
Having briefly interviewed her myself, I concur with this characterization—and from the sound of it, Osaka leans into the mystery, as she did when her interviewer, Brennan Kilbane, asked whether she’ll be relinquishing her American passport to play in the 2020 Olympics (Osaka has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Japan).
“You know what’s more interesting? If I don’t tell you, and I just, like, shock you,” she coyly replies.
Then again, maybe the mystery lies in the awkwardness inspired by interacting with someone blessed with the innate greatness Osaka possesses, without having developed any of the attendant pretenses…at least, not yet.
“I feel like people just think that I tend to talk a bit strangely, and I also feel like I can come across very different to people,” the bilingual 21-year-old tells Allure. “[S]o I don’t know, I think it’s all about perception.”
Fittingly, her trainer, Abdul Sillah (formerly Serena Williams’ trainer) has nicknamed her “the baby-faced assassin.” With a 125-mile per hour serve, it’s risky being on the other end of the court.
But despite her stardom, at this still-tender age, Osaka’s humility is almost heartbreaking. Raised similarly to her idol-turned-competitor Serena Williams, with an older, also tennis-playing sister, her father (himself inspired by Richard Williams) coached her to keep her eye perpetually on the ball.
“There’s a certain point where talent isn’t useful anymore, and from there you’ve just got to want to win more than everyone else,” Osaka says. “I think that’s something I noticed from an early age…
“My parents weren’t exactly the richest, so what am I going to do?” she continues. “I’m not really the smartest. I’ve been playing tennis my whole life, you know? So there’s nothing I can imagine myself doing. It’s either I have to be the best or I’m going to be homeless.”
No pressure—and reading Osaka’s cover story, one can’t help but hope this pace is as sustainable and successful for her as it’s been for Williams as Osaka quips about bones cracking as she wakes up, and asking “What’s a vacation?” when asked about her favorite vacation beauty find.
Or maybe that’s just the babyface hiding the killer instinct, as Kilbane writes:
“Because the thing about assassins is not that they can kill on command, using whatever raw materials they have nearby…but that deep inside of them there is a small and impenetrable black box that operates according to an unknowable logic.”