Naomi Osaka on tennis and childhood: “Home is the queen and these courts”

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Just days before reigning US Open champion Naomi Osaka entered the pitch at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, Queens, for her first match of the 2021 tournament, the four-time Grand Slam champion made another stop in Queens: at an unpretentious public park in Jamaica.

There at Detective Keith L. Williams Park, Ms. Osaka witnessed the unveiling of five refurbished tennis courts with new netting and surfaces, all surrounded by newly painted graphics and symbols. With funding from Bodyarmor, the Whitestone, Queens-based sports drink company, Ms. Osaka served as a creative and practical advisor on how to renovate tennis courts.

After all, it was personal to her.

Ms. Osaka, whose father is Haitian and mother is Japanese (and who represents Japan when she competes), was 3 when her family left Osaka, Japan, for Elmont, a hamlet on Long Island near the border. from Queens. Soon after, her father started bringing Naomi and her younger sister, Mari, to Jamaican courts because they were free and inclusive. The sisters learned to play tennis there. Naomi became the world’s No.1 player in 2019.

Credit…via Naomi Osaka

“As a traveling athlete, the place where you always feel like home is Queens and these courts,” said Ms Osaka, who played tennis in Jamaica until her family left. the area for Pembroke Pines, Florida when she was 8 years old. “Husband and I spent so much time here as a kid, so many hours on these grounds, training, and we really feel a connection not only with the grounds but also with the region and the community. .

Before Ms Osaka visited either of the Queens courts, whether it’s a stadium or a public park, The Times caught up with her via email. The following is a edited and condensed version of the interview.

Q. How did you end up playing tennis in Jamaica?

A. It was really expensive to train in indoor clubs or any other field for that matter, especially considering the number of hours we usually spent on the field training. So my parents started taking me to play in Jamaica because that was all we really had as an option.

What memories do you keep of these courts?

My father always trained me and Mari. We mostly did drills, but I remember hitting with some of the local players, men who were between 30 and 50 years old. Because we were there so often, everyone knew who we were and there was a sense of community. When I first started playing, I remember some of them liked to kick our ass. But as I got older, I was able to fight against some of them. I remember one of them, he was tall and lanky. I started beating him too much, so my dad gave me some rules to follow like always hitting him the ball so he didn’t have to move or start every game with 0-30.

Credit…via Naomi Osaka

Do you have any vivid memories of New York then?

On the weekends my mom would take us into town and take us to Chinatown, and we had this warm, chewy scallion bread. I have no idea which store it was, but it’s my favorite food, and I think about it when I think of New York.

It can be difficult to find a tennis court in town. Many have high fees or long queues. How would you like to see this one work?

I would love to see people from the community playing on this field, people who can’t necessarily afford a club membership, people who just want to try hitting balls for fun, or kids who are trying to achieve a dream. When we were young we got kicked out of lots of lots because we stayed too long or didn’t have enough money. I want these courts to allow anyone to play on a first come, first serve basis.

When you renovated the courts, you left a lot of symbols there. Tell us about their meaning.

Not only did I want to create a really cool terrain that kids could relate to and come to see and play on, but we wanted to leave behind a message that would hopefully inspire the community, especially the kids. Husband, who is an incredible artist, and I collaborated on a mural that links some of our personal backgrounds as well as places and symbols.

As you enter the courthouse, you will see a welcome sign in English, Haitian, and Japanese, which represents our past. Music is also an integral part of my life, it is my pre-game ritual, so you will see musical notes painted on the edge of the court. There is also a trophy at one end to recognize my career and inspire others to achieve their goals. Peace is incredibly important to me off the pitch, so you’ll see symbols of it. While the colors we have used in the field are vivid, they are also fresh and calming. I’m a big fan of blues and purples.

Would you be interested in developing other courts and programs in other underserved neighborhoods across the country?

I’m already working on a bunch of similar projects with my foundation, the Play Academy. We want to create opportunities for girls to have positive experiences with play and sport in the United States, Japan and Haiti. My parents also built tennis courts (as part of a school) in Jacmel, Haiti. My dad has family there and it’s not too far from the capital, which makes it a great location.

At the end of the day, I just hope everyone remembers that tennis is a game and it’s meant to be fun.


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