As the U.S. Open begins this week, Osaka may be a premature pick to lift this year’s trophy, but the prospect also wouldn’t be entirely outlandish. At 20, she is the youngest woman in the world’s Top 20 — and Japan’s highest-ranked female player in more than a decade. Serena Williams declared two years ago that Osaka was “very dangerous.” So it wasn’t a complete surprise when she put together a spectacular run in March at Indian Wells, in California, demolishing three current or former world No.1s on the way to her first W.T.A. title. Those upsets catapulted her up the rankings, from No. 68 at the end of 2017 to 17 by early August. “Ever since I can remember, I played better against bigger players on bigger courts,” she told me, her high, soft voice a contrast to the ferocity she displays on court. Tsuyoshi Yoshitani, a sports reporter with Kyodo News, says: “Naomi is like no Japanese player ever before. I think she will be the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam.”
Yet Osaka’s rise is accompanied by a curious tension: She is half-Japanese, half-Haitian, representing a country whose obsession with racial purity has shaped her own family’s history. Though born in Japan, Osaka has lived in the United States since she was 3. She is not fully fluent in Japanese. Yet nearly a decade ago, her father decided that his two daughters would represent Japan, not America. It was a prescient move. Osaka’s success — and her tweeted affection for Japanese manga and movies — has endeared her to Japanese fans hungry for a female tennis star.
What makes Osaka so complicated for Japan is precisely what makes her so appealing to many fans and corporate brands around the world. The young woman with the fearsome forehand and 120-mile-per-hour serve may not simply be the future of women’s tennis. “When I look 15 years into the future, I see Naomi having a great tennis career, perhaps even with Grand Slam titles,” Stuart Duguid, her agent at I.M.G., says. “But I also hope that she’s changed cultural perceptions of multiracial people in Japan. I hope she’s opened the door for other people to follow, not just in tennis or sports, but for all of society. She can be an ambassador for change.”