The Japanese tennis champion tells Vogue why style and sport make the perfect partnership.
“I tend to go back and forth between badass and feminine,” the reigning US Open and Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka tells Vogue.
The 21-year-old sportswoman could be talking about her inspirations, but she’s in fact talking about her style. “When I’m not on the court, I tend to gravitate towards pieces that are super unique and funky—it’s too tame for Japan, but too wild for America.” Fitting then, that Japanese brand Sacai has teamed up with Nike to design an 11-piece collection (available from the beginning of September) that’s Osaka personified.
“This collaboration was a special one because it was the perfect marriage of elevated Japanese fashion with the practical needs of my life as an athlete,” says Osaka. “It makes me feel edgy and confident, but in an understated way. The collection is just really cool and different from anything else you see in sportswear right now… Kind of futuristic, but also really wearable streetwear.”
Born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, Osaka’s family moved to Long Island, New York, when she was three. Aged 15, she entered her first WTA qualifying match. Last year, in a match marred by controversy, she beat Serena Williams to secure her first US Open title. Victory at the Australian Open followed. With the wins, came huge amounts of fame, and pressure.
When she was defeated at Wimbledon, she came under intense scrutiny. She made headlines again earlier this week, when Williams beat her in the quarter finals of the Rogers Cup—the first time since last year’s US Open that the two have met on the court.
The pressure and “the inability to go places unnoticed, especially in Japan,” are the parts of her newfound fame she finds hardest to deal with. Last year, “Naomi-bushi”, a term coined to refer to her softly spoken approach, was even nominated as one of Japan’s buzzwords of 2018: “Yes it is weird,” Osaka says, “and not something I would have ever imagined. I can’t decide if it’s an honour or the opposite. But I’m happy to roll with it.”
Osaka is currently preparing for her first Olympics in 2020, taking place not far from home in Tokyo. “One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in the last year has been to be more content in my own skin,” she says. “And that has meant making friends, getting to know people, and generally enjoying my life as a 21-year-old.”
Here, she tells Vogue about her love of fashion and sport, and lets us in on her winning formula of hyper-competitive fun.
On why fashion matters to her:
“Fashion is very important to me and it’s something I’m passionate about. It’s the way that we all outwardly express who we are. I love the creative side of it and being able to design or wear something that’s unique, or actually has a meaning behind it. I wish I could change the tennis calendar so that I could spend some time at New York Fashion Week. It’s always so frustrating because after the US Open I always have to rush off to an event in Japan and therefore miss all the action.”
On being hyper-competitive:
“I definitely feel like I have a very different personality on the court than off the court. On the court, I am fuelled by a burning desire to win and would have to say I am hyper-competitive—however, I think that’s a positive. Off court I am more reserved and laid-back.”
On her role models, and being one herself:
“In life, I look up to my family—sister, mum and dad; and some other trailblazers like Beyoncé and Rihanna. I went to her Fenty pop-up store in Paris and may have splurged—oops! In sport, I have tremendous respect for those athletes that have managed not just to reach the top, but stay there for a long time… Serena [Williams], Kobe [Bryant], LeBron [James], come to mind. But being a role model is something that I take very seriously. I hope to inspire young athletes everywhere, but especially young girls from Japan and Haiti. Follow your dreams and anything is possible.”
On the 2020 Olympics:
“I feel like I’ve been talking about Tokyo for years and years now. [The Olympics are] such an iconic event and the world is going to see Tokyo for what it is—one of the most captivating and interesting cities on the planet. The people are so hospitable and welcoming. The Western world is going to fall in love with Tokyo.”
On the importance of having fun:
“I tend to win more when I’m having fun. When I am enjoying the city in which I’m competing in, I tend to have a more positive mindset and that often translates to results. I can’t say winning or having fun is more important than the other because they are so intertwined… But if you are truly happy then can anything else be more important?”