Nobody really expected this to happen. Before the start of the US Open this year, Naomi Osaka was largely unknown to global audiences. All of that changed when Osaka hit a forceful forehand passing shot winner at 4-1 in the first set versus Serena Williams, out-firing her in the ‘come-on’ mind games at Flushing Meadows this weekend. A heated 19-shot rally went in Osaka's favour when she hit a forehand down the line early in the second. Williams' normally lethal serve misfired, hitting a double fault in each service game of the first set. Williams struck back-to-back double faults when immediately broken back for 3-2 in the second, paving the way for a racket smash. “Broadway, a stone's throw away, couldn't match the drama that unfolded,” gushed CNN. Undaunted, however, Osaka served the match out with rare aplomb, delivering a searing serve that Williams barely got to touch. A new champion was born. Osaka had won the US Open. In style.
By defeating Serena Williams at the US Open, Naomi Osaka not only won US$3.8 million in prize money but that is also most likely the start of her journey to become the highest paid female athlete in the world with off-court earnings expected to soar 10-folds from her current US$1.5 million to US$15 million over the next couple of years. Tennis is by far the most lucrative sport in the world for female athletes. Eight of the ten highest-paid women are tennis players (racing’s Danica Patrick and badminton’s PV Sindhu are the only exceptions). Serena Williams led the way for the third straight year with $18.1 million in the 12 months ending June 1, 2018. Williams earned only $62,000 in prize money after a maternity break for the birth of her daughter Alexis, but Serena's endorsement portfolio topped all other female athletes. Maria Sharapova was the top-earning female athlete for the 11 years before Williams took over from her in 2016.
The 20-year-old Osaka has the potential to be the face of global tennis for the next decade, with Williams turning 37 this month. But even if Osaka does not maintain her winning streak and does not continue to emulate her US Open success, her position as Japan’s top female athlete and first-time Slam winner will still skyrocket her income. Osaka’s current endorsements include Adidas, Yonex, Nissin and Wowow. She inked a multiyear deal with watch brand Citizen ahead of the U.S. Open.
Osaka wears a Nissin patch on her tennis outfits while the Japanese brand famous for its instant noodles also controls the naming rights to the new champion. Osaka is also the face of all tennis coverage for Japanese broadcaster WOWOW through interviews, personal appearances and digital marketing, an honor she shares with Kei Nishikori, the best known Japanese male tennis superstar.
Naomi Osaka was born in her namesake city Osaka to a Japanese mother and Haitian father. She moved to the US at age three with her family. She currently lives in Florida. Osaka has dual Japanese and American citizenship, but her father took a decision very early on in her career to register her with the Japan Tennis Association. Osaka beat Madison Keys in the semi-finals to reach her first Grand Slam final. She turned pro in September 2013 at the age of 16, and qualified for her first Grand Slam in 2016 at the Australian Open. So far some of her career’s biggest wins have come against Angelique Kerber - winner of Wimbledon this year, and Venus Williams whom she beat in 2017 at the Hong Kong Open. This season she also beat Maria Sharapova at Indian Wells and her US Open final opposition Serena Williams at the Miami Open. Osaka also plays doubles with older sister Mari.
This is Osaka's first Grand Slam win as she toasts her best season on the tennis court. Until this year's Australian Open, the Japanese star had failed to get past the third round of any of the major tournaments but she made it through to the fourth round where she was knocked out by eventual runner-up Simona Halep. In March, Osaka competed at the WTA Indian Wells Masters where she was unseeded and at the time ranked number 44 in the world. She became only the third unseeded player to win the women's title at the event (Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters the other two), beating Draia Kasatkina 6-3, 6-2 in one hour and 10 minutes.
Asian-born tennis players have hitherto really not made a big splash on the world stage. But those who have, underline the tremendous potential for sponsorship in the Chinese and Japanese markets.
China’s Li Na became a global sensation in 2011 when she won the French Open, the first Chinese player to win a major global tournament. Li signed seven multimillion deals shortly after her Roland Garros win. Her annual off-court earnings soared from roughly $2 million to close to $20 million. She continues to bank more than $10 million annually even in retirement.
Similarly, the Japanese Kei Nishikori has made it past the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam only twice (the U.S. Open in 2014 and 2018), but his standing as the top Japanese player has proved to be nothing short of a veritable gold mine. Nishikori has more than a dozen endorsements … Nissin, Uniqlo, Wilson, Lixil, Weider, Jaccs, Jaguar, Air Weave, Asahi, Japan Airlines, NTT Group, Nike, IMG Academy and Wowow … that generate $30 million annually, including bonuses and appearances.
Only Roger Federer earns more among tennis players globally. Nicknamed ‘Special Kei’, Nishikori is the only player from the Land of the Rising Sun to have ever got into the Top 5 ATP rankings. And this may be the reason why a lot of his endorsements success can be credited to his country of origin. Naomi Osaka has already gone much further than Nishikori on the success summit. Japan based brands are sure to welcome her with open arms, and open cheque books.
Nishikori so far was being positioned by Japan as the global face of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics by many of his sponsors, who are also Olympic sponsors. One could see a rush by Japanese brands to sign on Osaka well in time for the summer Olympics which are now just two years away. She has the ability to win the first-ever medal for a Japanese women’s tennis player. That could become THE game changer for many a Japanese brand wanting to bask in patriotic glory and global conquest.
To understand the windfall that awaits Naomi Osaka, it would be interesting to note that the share price of her racquet maker, Yonex, jumped more than 10 per cent on the Tokyo Stock Exchange with her semifinal win at the US Open. The impact on the stock when the stock exchange opens on Monday post her being crowned champion can only be far far better.
Naomi Osaka is surely going to be a name one is going to hear a lot of in the days to come. Both on-court and off-court. It is also perfect timing for her as far as her key endorsements are concerned. Her current low six-figures Adidas deal expires at the end of 2018. The U.S. Open win should push her asking price to at least US$3-5 million annually, including bonuses if she stays with Adidas or decides to move to the more glamorous Nike. Sloane Stephens leveraged her 2017 U.S. Open win into a mind-blowing blockbuster multimillion deal with Nike, after her Under Armor pact expired shortly after the Open title. Osaka could well do better.
Dr. Sandeep Goyal specializes in studies on celebrities as human brands. He has a PhD from FMS-Delhi in this subject.