The world’s current number 1 tennis player is more than capable of holding her own court, thank you very much.
Imagine this: you’ve been training for tennis superstardom all your life. You and your older sister had been homeschooled as kids to make way for an intensive tennis training schedule. And this was all because your father was inspired to turn his daughters into tennis stars after watching Serena and Venus Williams become two of the best players in the world.
It didn’t matter that he had little experience as a tennis player. After all, Richard Williams managed to raise and coach two professional athletes by himself, despite having never played the sport professionally either.
Fast forward to September 2018. This would be your defining moment; the one you had been training for all 20 years of your young life. Facing you on the court was Serena Williams— tennis legend and your childhood idol.
You win the match. But that wasn’t what people talked about.
Instead, they talked about how Serena had smashed her racket in anger after getting into a dispute with the umpire. They talked about how she was penalised. As you receive your trophy, the whole stadium was jeering. The crowd was really booing the umpire, but in that emotional moment, it felt like they were booing at you for taking the title away from a respected, well-loved tennis star.
What should have been a highlight of Naomi’s career had turned into an extremely distressing experience. She pulled the brim of her visor over her eyes so people couldn’t see her crying. “I know everyone was cheering for her and I’m sorry it had to end like this,” she said apologetically, her voice cracking from trying to hold back her tears.
The Japanese player may have been the 2016 WTA Newcomer of the Year, and taken down the likes of tennis giants like Angelique Kerber, Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams, but in that moment, she was the young girl who worshipped Serena.
“When I hugged her at the net, I felt like a little kid again,” she said, recounting the incident to reporters.
As heartbreaking as that moment was, that didn’t hinder Naomi from bringing her A-game to the court. Less than a year later, the 21-year-old secured her spot as World Number 1 after she clinched her second Grand Slam title at the Australian Open last January.
She didn’t apologise for her victory this time.
A quiet appeal
Like others growing up in the age of social media, she also had to deal with a fair share of bullying. After her first Grand Slam victory, bullies took to her Instagram to leave a barrage of comments. There’s also an Instagram user who repeatedly sends her messages that wish “terrible injury” on her, after she loses a game. It clearly has affected Naomi—she once shared the vile comments on Instagram with the caption: “Every time without fail.”
Though her powerful forehand may appear like her greatest asset, Naomi says it’s her mental strength that got her to the top. “Every match that I’ve played, I’ve thought: ‘Just don’t give up no matter what’,” she told WTA Insider in a 2018 interview.
Naomi has been compared to Serena since the beginning of her career. That’s understandable, considering her father literally followed the “Williams formula” to kick-start her athletic journey. She’s more than aware of it as well. “I don’t think there’s ever going to be another Serena Williams. I think I’m going to be me. And I hope people are OK with that,” she said in an interview with TIME.
Her sincerity and shyness is a big part of her mass appeal, winning her a huge fanbase. She’s a celebrated athlete that a lot of young girls look up to. In Japan, she’s also become somewhat of a hero in the “hafu” community, the Japanese term for people of mixed heritage (Naomi’s father is Haitian).
And the numbers don’t lie. Besides the titles under her belt, sis is making bank as well. Her sponsors include Yonex, Adidas, Shiseido, Nissan Motor, Citizen Watch, and All Nippon Airways. According to a TIME report, she could be making up to $15 million a year.
Despite her status as a tennis titan, she still fields questions from the press with her trademark girl-next-door candor, and enters every match with an air of quiet confidence; the kind that stems from a solid foundation of years of honing her craft. At the core of it, Naomi is a girl who’s trying her best. And that’s what we love her for.
THAT’S SO NAOMI
The young tennis star is known for her candid and hilarious media interviews. Here are some of the best quotes:
1. Naomi responded to a reporter before interrupting herself by saying, “I forgot the rest of your question, sorry.”
2. When asked what advice she would give Destanee Aiava, an 18-year-old Australian she beat in the quarter-finals of the Brisbane Internationals, Naomi quipped: “Don’t ask me for advice, that’s the advice I would tell her.”
3. Reporter: “How do you find out more about your opponents?” Naomi: “Um, Google.”
4. She told a room full of reporters: “To be honest, I had a notebook, so every night before bed I would write jokes so I can present them to you guys.” It was a joke, of course.
5. In an interview when she was 19, Naomi was asked to list which tennis players she was friends with. She rattled off several names before exclaiming: “I’d be glad if I have this many friends, so I’m just going to cut it here.”
6. Naomi wasn’t sure how to process her victory at the Australian Open finals this year. She said: “Maybe if I see my sister I can be, like, guess who’s the number one tennis player? Me.”
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A local sportswoman you should know about: Veronica Shanti Pereira.
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