Naomi Osaka is contemplating another career hiatus after her meltdown at the US Open. This time though, it might benefit her to scale back the promotional onslaught that accompanied her last ‘break’ from the spotlight.
We’ve been here before with Naomi Osaka.
After she declared a media boycott at the French Open back in May, she ended up pulling out in Paris altogether and taking a break from the court, citing mental health battles.
This time round, Osaka suggested the same was on the cards after her racquet-slamming, tear-filled exit in the third round at the US Open.
Trying to keep it together after seeing her title defense evaporate against 18-year-old outsider Leylah Fernandez, Osaka dropped the news at her post-match press conference that we might not see her on court for a while.
“Basically I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and honestly I don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match,” said the uncomfortable Japanese star.
“But I think I’m going to take a break from playing for a while.”
It was an excruciating, very public therapy session.
If Osaka really is fed up with tennis at the tender age of 23, plenty wouldn’t blame her; after all, she’s been swinging a racquet ever since her father’s obsession with molding her and her sibling Mari into the new Williams sisters took hold at an early age.
Osaka wouldn’t be the first sports star to burn out, or even walk away altogether to pursue other passions – be they fashion, music or whatever else.
The thing about Osaka’s case, however, is that people should feel wary based on what transpired last time round.
Far from removing her from the spotlight, Osaka’s previous mental health sojourn ended up ushering in a barrage of promotional and media campaigns.
Not long after the announcement in mid-June that she would also be skipping Wimbledon, Osaka (or at least her PR team) initiated an onslaught that has rarely let up since.
First came an appearance in the Japanese edition of Vogue magazine. “Hi guys. Popping out to post this @voguemagazine Japan cover, hope you’re all doing well and staying safe,” Osaka wrote to her social media following on June 21.
After that, the media machine kicked into overdrive heading into the Olympics.
We had the promotion of her Nike collection, an interview in Time magazine (‘It’s OK not to be OK’), a new Barbie doll, a saccharine Netflix docuseries, Vogue Hong Kong, an appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the list goes on…
Yes, much of the media was planned many months in advance – Osaka said so herself in an ugly social media row with former Fox News host Megyn Kelly over her Sports Illustrated cover.
And yes, Osaka is also at the mercy of contracts and her marketing team, and might not be pulling the strings.
But the message was confusing: here was a fragile star who had cried out for less of the media spotlight, yet was gracing the cover of magazines from Tokyo to Timbuktu.
That barrage preceded Osaka’s return in Japan, where she had the honor of lighting the Olympic flame at the Opening Ceremony – the chance of a lifetime, but another marketing fillip.
On court though, she flamed out with a disappointing third-round exit against Marketa Vondrousova.
A similarly shock exit to Swiss wildcard Jil Teichmann followed in the round of 16 at the Cincinnati Open – after more tears at a press conference – in less than idea preparation for her Flushing Meadows title defense.
Despite her struggles on court, it’s not hard to see why Osaka has continued to command net gains off it.
She has established herself as the highest-paid female athlete in the world, smashing records in the Forbes rich lists.
At the last count she racked up $60 million in annual earnings, the majority of which came from endorsements rather than on-court cash.
With her Haitian-Japanese ancestry and American upbringing, Osaka hits a cross-cultural sweet spot as the most bankable female sports star of her generation, a standard-bearer for Gen Z.
Shy of the spotlight when it comes to answering the media’s questions after matches, Osaka has leveraged her profile when it suits her, plugging causes such as BLM – and in one case leading an entire tournament to suspend play following her zealous activism.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with Osaka pursuing causes she feels passionate about; likewise, there’s nothing wrong with profiting from the tennis talent which has brought her four Grand Slam titles.
But there is something wrong with the mixed messaging, with claiming you don’t want the spotlight then all of a sudden demanding more of it, with patronizing people with ‘powerful messages about positivity’ when in reality you are in the incredibly privileged position of never having to work again at the age of 23, such is your wealth.
In the current woke-driven climate, sponsors will be reluctant to do anything other than praise Osaka publicly for her ‘bravery’, even if she does take another break.
Money can be made in spite of her absence from the court; indeed, any time off can be spun as the latest bold step in bringing mental health into focus – no matter if companies secretly suspect that the longer it goes without Osaka winning, the more her appeal could wane.
Accompanied by the likes of crusader-in-arms Simone Biles, Osaka and her team can claim to be keeping discussions on ‘self-care’ and ‘wellbeing’ in vogue, all the while making sure they are in Vogue in a very different sense.
But if Osaka continues to marry her time off court with an ever-greater array of marketing hook-ups, side-hustles and photoshoots, then any sympathy should start to go out of fashion – and fast.
By Liam Tyler
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.