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Once upon a time, there was a girl from Japan with arms so strong she could serve a tennis ball at more than 120 miles per hour. Her name is Naomi Osaka – a powerful professional tennis player who has taken the sport by storm and has become an advocate for mental health. Naomi has been ranked No. 1 by the Women’s Tennis Association and is the first Asian player to hold the top ranking in singles.
Megalyn Echikunwoke is an actor, writer singer, and dancer. Discovered at a high school theater camp by a Hollywood manager, she got her start in the industry at 14. She has a striking presence with an undeniable talent through her range of portrayals of characters in television, film and the theater. Though she was raised by a widowed, single mother who worked as a registered nurse on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, she is of Igbo-Nigerian, German, Irish and Scandinavian descent. She is also the granddaughter of an Igbo tribal leader which technically makes her African royalty. Inspired by her many cultural influences, Megalyn believes in the power of art and storytelling to expose injustice, shift culture and heal communities.
|Once upon a time… there was a girl from Japan with arms SO strong she could serve a tennis ball at more than 120 miles per hour.
Her name… is Naomi.
Naomi walks out onto the tennis court. She is 18 years old, competing in the Australian Open. She has headphones covering her ears. They mute the sound of the crowd, the reporters, the other players, and coaches.
With the headphones on it’s all just a dull roar.
Naomi had always been shy around people. She doesn’t like large crowds or people looking at her. Sometimes it makes her feel worried, anxious, and embarrassed when so many people come to watch her play.
But now it’s time to get to work. Naomi takes off her headphones and shrugs out of her jacket. She bounces the ball in front of her a few times and then tosses it into the air. Her arm comes down hard.
Her first serve slams inside the white lines and then out of the other player’s reach. She won her first point of the game.
But Naomi doesn’t let up until sweat pours down her face and all her muscles ache. She came to win…and she does.
After the game comes the tough part. Dealing with the press. Naomi winces at every flash of the cameras and every shouted question. One of the journalists waves a notebook in her face and asked her what she hoped to achieve.
“To be the very best, like no one ever was,” Naomi said. She was making a small joke with the quote from the cartoon, Pokemon, but Naomi was serious.
She was prepared to work as hard as it took to make this dream come true.
I’m Megalyn Echikunwoke. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
On this episode… Naomi Osaka. A powerful professional tennis player who has taken the sport by storm, and has become an advocate… for mental health.
Naomi’s parents, Francois and Tamaki met in the 1990’s while Francois, a student from Haiti, studied in Japan. Tamaki and Francois dated in secret and fell in love, but her parents weren’t happy that their daughter had married a foreign, dark-skinned man. They called Tamaki a disgrace and told her she was on her own with her new husband.
“We can do this alone,” Tamaki told herself.
The couple moved to a bigger city, Osaka, Japan, to start a new life and had their first daughter, Mari.
And eighteen months later in 1997, Naomi was born with wild, beautiful curly hair and brown skin. Naomi and her older sister Mari were half-Hatian and half-Japanese, and people in Japan called them “haffu”—meaning “mixed race” or “half.” They bullied the sisters because of their dark skin.
But Naomi didn’t feel half of anything. She felt like a whole person.
At age three, Naomi’s family left Japan and moved to Long Island, New York, a much bigger place than Osaka.
In New York, they moved in with Francois’s parents from Haiti. It must have been a culture shock with all the new foods, sights, smells, and languages all around them.
But the one thing that stayed the same was tennis.
Every time there was a game on television, Francois, Naomi, and Mari sat down to watch two particular girls play.
They both had beautiful dark skin. Their wild curly hair had been braided with pretty white beads that clattered together each time they moved.
Serena and Venus Williams were world famous tennis sisters who beat everybody. Their powerful legs and quick feet moved gracefully around the court. They grunted, squealed, yelled, and groaned with the power of each stroke. The racket was like an extension of their arms.
“How about we put you in tennis lessons?” Francois asked them. “You know, their daddy started training them at about your ages.”
Mari and Naomi looked at each other with a sparkle in their eyes. They were going to play. And they were going to win.
At ages three and four, Naomi and Mari started tennis lessons. Because Mari was a little older, she was always a step ahead of Naomi. When they went out on the court, Mari was always a little faster and stronger than Naomi.
Imagine it! Two tiny little girls – ages THREE and FOUR. With big tennis rackets. Whacking small tennis balls over a net that was taller than they were!
A few years later, Francois and Tamaki decided to homeschool their daughters so they could get more time on the tennis court. The only problem was that the New York winters were bitter cold. The snow and ice prevented them from playing outside for months out of the year.
So, the family picked up and moved to Florida! In Florida, they’d be closer to better coaches, fantastic weather, and all the most talented players. Naomi was nine, the same age as the great Serena Williams had been when she’d moved to Florida to enter a famous tennis training academy.
It was heaven! Naomi loved the swaying palm trees, constant warm weather, and all that sunshine! Best of all, Naomi and Mari could play tennis all year round.
Naomi felt like she was walking in Serena’s footsteps. But would she follow her idol into tennis super stardom!?
Right before her sixteenth birthday, all that intense training paid off. Naomi skipped right past the junior tennis league and became a professional tennis player in 2013.
But Naomi had citizenship in two countries and belonged to three cultures – Japan, Haiti, and America. Which one should she choose? She decided to rock the Japanese flag and represent her birth country.
Some people were a little confused. How could a black girl be from Japan? Did she even speak Japanese? Naomi usually used a Japanese interpreter to speak for her because she was shy about making a mistake. She understood what she heard and read on paper much better than she could speak her mother’s native language.
Yet still, all kinds of people rooted for her—Black, White, Asian, Biracial, American, Haitian, Japanese.
Reporters wanted to know why she was so popular.
“Maybe it’s because they can’t really pinpoint what I am,” Naomi said. “Anybody can cheer for me.”
Naomi got so popular that companies wanted Naomi to be in their commercials, on billboards, and wear their merchandise at matches. They thought she could make them lots of money, and they were right. Consumers wanted to buy anything Naomi-approved.
But not all of the attention was positive. In an ad for Japanese noodles, they made Naomi’s skin and hair lighter than it appeared in real life. A Japanese comedian even made fun of her skin tone.
Naomi and her fans were furious. The companies took the ads down, and the comedian apologized to Naomi for the hurtful words. She refused to be shamed for being darker-skinned. And nobody was allowed to use her picture without asking her first.
Naomi always stood up for what she believed in.
By 2018 Naomi had been a pro for nearly five years. She won matches and lost matches but that year she was going to play against a lot of great competitors – including her IDOL Serena Williams.
Naomi arrived at the 2018 US Open with a song in her heart and butterflies in her belly. She was nervous as she walked in, past the reporters yelling questions, and the fans excited for the match. But as soon as she had a racket in her hands…the butterflies went away.
Each serve she hurled at opponents was faster than a truck on the highway. Her curly ponytail bounced each time she danced across the court and sweat poured down her face.
Naomi would not be stopped. Day after day she gave her whole heart to the game. She made it all the way to the top until she was face to face with a tennis legend and her childhood hero: Serena Williams.
Reporters wanted to know if Serena was worried about going against a young, powerful tennis player like Naomi.
“She’s really young and very aggressive … very dangerous,” Serena told reporters.
This wasn’t just any match. Serena Williams was about to make history if she won. This would be her 24th Grand Slam title which would make her the most decorated female tennis player in history. And if Naomi won, she’d secure her first Grand Slam title.
Serena hit the ball and Naomi hit back harder. But the game was interrupted again and again by the referee. He said she had broken too many rules during the game. The crowd booed every time this happened, but cheered when Serena scored.
The referee gave her a penalty. Serena smashed her racket against the ground and shattered its frame.
Naomi tried to keep her cool as Serena stormed off the court to argue with the referee. Male players had done things much worse than Serena had and hadn’t gotten penalties.
Serena fought back tears and wiped her face with a towel. She headed back out to the court to face Naomi.
The young Japanese player was ready for her. She would not give up and brought her arm down.
They volleyed back and forth, but the final point went to Japan. The crowd erupted into cheers. Naomi had won!
Naomi pulled her visor down over her eyes and tears of joy squeezed out. Serena gave her a big hug to congratulate her.
At twenty years old, Naomi had secured her first Grand Slam title. It had always been her dream to play against Serena in the U.S open Finals and even though it hadn’t turned out exactly like she’d planned – she said that NOW she knows she can play with top players.
Naomi was at the top of her game.
Naomi spent lots of time traveling and bored in hotel rooms waiting for her matches to start. Even the famous, talented tennis star needed a break from the spotlight. Instead of spending time with people or going to parties, she started playing video games like Pokemon and Overwatch.
She’d racked up three Grand Slam titles since winning against Serena in 2018. Her latest was in Australia. But now, heading to France, she made a shocking announcement. She refused to speak to reporters at her next tournament in France.
Press conferences just didn’t make her feel good. They made her feel like a pit had opened up beneath her to swallow her whole. She’d seen too many players break down, feel bad about themselves, and leave in tears.
The president of the French Tennis Federation was furious. He said Naomi was “hurting tennis” by taking this stance. Tennis officials tried to force her to speak. She refused, so they fined her fifteen thousand dollars and threatened to kick her out of the tournament.
Depression was like a deep, dark thing gnawing at Naomi’s joy. Anxiety itched under her skin, making it hard to focus on her matches. Being around people made her tired and worried. She decided she needed to take time to heal.
Naomi withdrew from the tournament and used her online presence to speak out: “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018.”
Naomi’s withdrawal from the tournament shocked A LOT of people. But her fans and other tennis players were there to support her. Including Serena Wlliams.
“You just have to let her handle it the way she wants to…” Serena said. “In the best way she thinks she can.”
Naomi decided to take a longer break from her tennis career. Instead of playing at Wimbledon, a famous tennis tournament in England, she focused on herself and her mental wellness.
“Athletes are humans,” Naomi said.
She takes care of herself by spending time by herself, taking sick days, wearing noise-cancelling headphones in crowded situations, avoiding speaking in front of crowds, and talking about her problems with people she trusts instead.
But most important of all, she says “It’s okay to not be okay, and it’s ok to talk about it.” Because even the best, strongest people in the world… need help sometimes.