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Meet Osaka, the new darling of women's tennis

Japanese star courted by top sponsors eager for a slice of her international appeal

"With Osaka's win, we can expect a boom in attention to the sport in Japan, similar to what Nishikori brought when he played in the US Open final four years ago." - Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at Dai-Ichi Life Research Institute


IN winning the US Open last week, Naomi Osaka scored more than the biggest payday in tennis and a jackpot of endorsement deals. She's now front and centre in a discourse on national and racial identity in a world of global sports stars.

The toppling of former No 1 Serena Williams by the 20-year-old playing in her first Grand Slam final was a tennis landmark.

The win has launched Osaka into immediate stardom as a new face with international appeal, especially for advertisers eager to reach a younger, more diverse audience. Osaka's mother is Japanese and her father is Haitian-American.

While quibbles about Osaka being part Japanese continue to generate social media chatter in the country, they haven't seemed to dim her popularity as the television coverage and endorsements keep rolling in.

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Within days of her victory, Nissan Motor announced a three-year contract to make Osaka a "global brand ambassador". Citizen Watch said it was awarding her a bonus, and cable channel Wowow said viewership of this year's US Open women's final in Japan was nine times higher than for the previous year.

Hours after her banter about celebrity crushes and getting a free TV on the Ellen Degeneres show aired in the US, Osaka landed in Tokyo.

The same day, she stood for an interview at state-run broadcaster NHK. She did another backed by a wall of logos for Nissin Food Holdings, the dried noodle maker that sponsors her and compatriot Kei Nishikori, ranked No 12 on the men's tour.

"With Osaka's win, we can expect a boom in attention to the sport in Japan, similar to what Nishikori brought when he played in the US Open final four years ago," said Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at Dai-Ichi Life Research Institute.

The attention and endorsements in Japan are not a first for a biracial athlete.

Baseball player Yu Darvish, a starting pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, has a Japanese mother and Iranian father. Louis Okoye, who played outfield for the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan's professional baseball league, has a Nigerian father and a Japanese mother.

Still, the number of professional athletes in the country not born of two Japanese parents is considered small. Many in the country refer to residents who have one foreign parent not as "half Japanese", but just "half".

Hiroko Friend, a Japanese tennis player who was on the women's professional tour in the 1990s, said she's seldom asked about the ethnic background of her biracial son Jay.

He's ranked in the top five for under-14 players in New Zealand and has played tournaments in that country, Singapore, Australia and the Netherlands. Yet, it comes up in Japan.

"In Japan, they assume that biracial athletes have physical advantages," she said.

The advantages for Jay, she added, have been that he has more of a global outlook or "international mind" and so is more flexible to accept and adjust to differences in life".

While Osaka has seized media attention in Japan, the sports-business world buzzed with speculation that Adidas would pay a record sum to renew a clothing endorsement with the 1.8-metre tall star.

The Times of London reported that the winning bidder for Osaka's clothing deal would pay about US$8.5 million.

That's not too far behind a record-setting agreement, worth US$10 million a year, which Nishikori signed in 2016 with the Japan-based Uniqlo brand.

While the Times reported that sum as a record for a female tennis player, it's less than the clothing deal for Nishikori - ranked by Forbes magazine as the world's best-paid tennis player after Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Like Osaka, the 28-year-old Japanese sportsman made history by battling into a US Open final, the first such appearance for an Asian-born man. Yet he didn't win that 2014 match, nor any Grand Slam tournament.

Osaka's victory means her endorsement pay is in a range with that of her top male counterpart.

It's also a reminder that women players can draw bigger television viewership than men, a key measure of endorsement marketability and revenue generation for the sport.

Osaka's straight-sets triumph in the US Open final on Sept 8 was the most-watched match of the tournament covered by ESPN, drawing 50 per cent more fans than the men's final the following day.

While the top women players typically make less in endorsements than the top men, they draw more fans than men to the final, especially when Williams is in the match.

In US Open championships featuring the 23-Grand Slam winner, viewership has been almost double that reported for the men's final.

After the NHK and Nissin press appearances on Thursday, Osaka made her way to Nissan's Yokohama headquarters for a media event on her endorsement.

Speaking to reporters after hitting some balls on a makeshift court with Nissan senior vice-president Asako Hoshino, the subject turned to her nationality and race.

Amid the swirl of high-pressure matches, interviews and endorsement negotiations, it's a question she hasn't dwelt on.

"For me, it's just who I am, so when someone asks me a question like that, it really throws me off, because then, I really have to think about it," she said. "I just think, I am me." BLOOMBERG

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