We’ve been pondering the strange power of Come on!—which, sometime around when Osaka was born, 23 years ago, emerged as tennis’s prevailing battle cry, an autocatalytic fist pump in a pair of words. Though its origins are murky, many historians of the sport believe it was Lleyton Hewitt, the retired Australian two-time Grand Slam singles champion, who inoculated the tennis world with this efficient exhortation.
Roger Federer says it. So does Serena Williams. Some prefer to use their native tongue: Vamos! Allez! When Osaka was a 10-year-old learning the game, her father would pay her a quarter every time she shouted the words. “I hated it. I thought, If I’m so loud, then I’ll draw attention to myself,” she explains. “I felt like people would stare at me. But I don’t know. I guess I sort of got used to it.”
In the two short years since Osaka became an international tennis phenomenon by defeating Serena Williams in a contentious U.S. Open final that descended into boos from the crowd and tears from the newly minted champion, her disinclination toward decibels has been exhaustively cataloged. Indeed, her eyes seem to contemplate a roll at the inventory of descriptors offered up since she became a Slam winner:
shy, naive, timid, innocent, mild-mannered, reticent. But while lately Osaka has earned a reputation for bone-dry wit and sometimes jarring candor in the press room after matches, even she occasionally feels compelled to poke fun at her subdued affect. “Happy on the inside on the outside 😐,” she once tweeted.
It’s a cool October day in Beverly Hills, and Osaka hasn’t lifted a tennis racket since she won the U.S. Open for the second time in September, in the echo chamber of an audience-less Arthur Ashe Stadium. She wasn’t always able to tolerate long stretches away from the court, afraid she might lose her touch. She knows better now. The strokes, first coaxed out of her as a three-year-old, are automatic, the opportunity for rest precious.
Her home, at the top of a winding road, is a sleek agglomeration of boxes in concrete, pale wood, and glass. Outdoors, a layer of fog has settled over the pool, and the surrounding canyon offers its parched, brush-dotted undulations. The house is immaculate save for a pile of Nike tennis sneakers in the foyer, evidence that a fall cleaning is under way (the brand is one of her major sponsors).
Osaka sits opposite the soaring fireplace in orange joggers. “I’ve had quite a collection of Nike sweats for the pandemic,” she explains—ideal for sleeping in and playing Apex Legends. “Just a lot of lounging at the moment.” Thousands of miles away at the French Open—postponed by four months—one of her good friends on the tour, the young Pole Iga Swiatek, is on the brink of winning her first major.
Osaka decided to sit it out, but she’s itching to know the results. She checks tournament scores twice daily, morning and night, in order to avoid getting consumed. This tennis season, the goal has been simultaneously to return to the pinnacle of the sport and to take it just a little less seriously.
Osaka would argue that these are not mutually exclusive. “As tennis players, we’re so hyper-focused on what happens on the court, and we think our life is sort of determined by whether we win a match or not,” she says. “That’s not true. I think that the pandemic gave me the chance to go into the real world and do things that I wouldn’t have done without it.”