Books & Literature

Book Review: Naomi Osaka, by Ben Rothenberg

BIOGRAPHY: Ben Rothenberg will chart Naomi Osaka’s incredible impact on tennis and on social justice in sports, predicting where she’ll go next.

Incredibly detailed yet emotionally engaging.

Feature image credit: Text Publishing

This is an incredibly comprehensive biography. It begins with her parents and follows Naomi Osaka’s story from her birth up to the birth of her own child (Shai) in July 2023. The focus on tennis throughout the narrative is understandable, given that the sport has been central to her life outside of her family and coaches. From a young age, Osaka’s life path was carefully planned around a tennis career.

The book quickly introduces how her parents, Haitian-born Leonard Francois and Japanese resident Tamaki Osaka, met. They were not approved for marriage by Osaka’s family, so they moved to Osaka, where Mari and Naomi were born. Life in monocultural Japan was challenging, so they grabbed the opportunity to move to America when it arose through Leonard’s family. By the time they moved to America, the parents had already decided that their daughters’ futures, and thus their own, lay in tennis.

From there, we learn about her upbringing and her father’s extensive role in her tennis career. He taught himself how to coach the girls by following the blueprint of Richard Williams (father of Serena and Venus Williams). Additionally, he arranged for them to go to Florida for further coaching beyond his own methods. The family relied almost entirely on Tamaki’s income to support their needs, and Naomi remembers this time as being very difficult financially. One of her greatest motivators for winning a title was to ensure that her mother could retire. It leaves the reader to ponder on the ethical and emotional considerations surrounding the issue of a child living a life that fulfils their parents’ expectations or dreams.

As the book progresses and Naomi enters the world of tennis, coaches, and matches, the narrative becomes overly detailed for those who are not deeply passionate about the sport. This excessive focus on minutiae will cause the book to lose its appeal for readers like me, although it could be useful for those making a career in the sport.

So, after a number of rather technical chapters, it picks up pace again with her first match against Serena. It not only highlights the developments of her career but also takes a deep dive into her identity formation. This includes handling her emotions in response to failures and success in matches, dealing with press conferences, her foray into social media, and other critical milestones, such as finding her voice.

As Rothenberg chronicles these growths, there is a pervasiveness that Naomi had a feeling of not fitting in in any world. She was the “poor one” in a tennis world where most kids had substantial financial support from their parents. She spent many years feeling isolated with only her parents, her sports team, and her sister being part of her life. For years, Naomi’s sister was her best and only friend but also her biggest competitor.

On a personal level she is very shy, and attributes her confidence in public speaking to her upbringing on the internet, because at least one person will give her a “like.” I cried a couple of times during the latter half of the book as the focus shifted from tennis to broader topics such as identity, race, and politics, and how these elements intersect with sports and its champions.

Naomi recalls that while America did not support her initially, Japan took a punt and provided the lifeline she (and her family) needed. Her gratitude towards Japan runs deep, but she also feels her values align with Japanese culture, which is why she plays for Japan. She only stopped speaking Japanese as a child after a teacher advised her mother that it was hindering her speech development.

Despite her father being more present than her mum (due to her mum having to work long hours, and her dad being involved in her coaching), Naomi has long explored the Japanese part of herself. However, her Haitian heritage as part of her identity emerged as she matured. This was evident in her use of masks during the seven games she played during the COVID-19 pandemic and her participation in the Black Lives Matter movement.

By the book’s end we see Naomi stands for social justice and for better approaches to mental health. These become her other identifying features outside of tennis. The biography ends when she first becomes a mother, leaving the reader to speculate whether she will continue her tennis career.

Rothenberg, one of the world’s leading tennis journalists, has followed Naomi Osaka’s career since the WTA Tour in 2014, in print for the New York Times and on his podcast, No Challenges Remaining. The book is well-written and largely factual, yet Rothenberg infuses the text with emotion and depth, providing a nuanced portrait of Osaka.

Reviewed by Rebecca Wu

The views expressed in this review belong to the author and not Glam Adelaide, its affiliates, or employees.

Distributed by: Text Publishing
Released: January 2024
RRP: $36.99

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