Kasey Symons reviews Ben Rothernberg’s new book “Naomi Osaka: Her Journey to Finding Her Power and Her Voice”.
I wouldn’t class myself as a “tennis fan”. It’s one of those sports I have a fleeting interest in when the Australian Open rolls around (hence this issue of the Siren Sport newsletter!) and the other Grand Slams. But I don’t feel I connect with tennis like the team sports I follow. I don’t get that same sense of belonging and connection to the culture.
But when I’m asked to reflect on my women in sport heroes, I list trailblazing women like Billie Jean King and the two Australian women, Kerry Melville Reid and Judy Tegart Dalton, who joined her “Original 9” to drive gender and pay equality in tennis. I always think of Serena and Venus Williams and how they changed the narrative for what “powerful” means for women, and women of colour in particular in sport. I think of Evonne Goolagong Cawley, the first Indigenous Australian to win a singles Grand Slam and Ash Barty who followed in her footsteps and carved her own path. I think of Sam Stosur and Jelena Dockic, incredible athletes representing Australia on the court and continuing to use their platforms and voices in retirement. I think of Naomi Osaka and how she has changed the game for athlete activism.
And then I think… maybe I am a tennis fan?
So many icons of women’s sport are tennis players. What is it about tennis that attracts or creates these leaders and legends? And it was this question that was on my mind when the new Naomi Osaka biography, Naomi Osaka: Her Journey to Finding Her Power and Her Voice by New York Times journalist Ben Rothenberg came across my desk. I wanted to learn about one of the women I so admire and am quick to highlight as a hero, but realised I actually don’t know that much about. Such is the intrigue and impact of Osaka that Rothenberg exquisitely details in this book.
Naomi Osaka: Her Journey to Finding Her Power and Her Voice is the work of an expert journalist determined to leave no stone unturned in painting the bigger picture. The book is detailed, thoroughly researched and contextually placed to give Osaka’s story the wider cultural and political lens which is the attention she and her career deserves.
Rothenberg provides us Japanese cultural context as well as a Haitian and American lens, histories and identities which intersect in Osaka’s heritage, points to the disparities of privilege and access in elite tennis and also uses the text to give voice to the experiences of other women in tennis coming through the tournament circuit. I learned so much about the challenges, successes and stories of some many incredible women Osaka faced on the court that I would have otherwise never known. Players like Taylor Townsend, Petra Kvitová, Madison Keys and Osaka’s sister Mari. All athletes tennis fans would undoubtedly know, and I feel grateful to learn more about them through this book.
Rothenberg gives incredible detail to the big moments of Osaka’s career and provides the insight of a seasoned tennis journalist. The moment that put Osaka on the biggest stage, her 2018 US Open Singles victory is covered with precise research to report what happened from multiple perspectives, but also allows for the nuance and elasticity that the moment requires to really understand the complicated intersections of impact that moment had on not only Naomi, but women in sport more broadly.
I felt immersed in the foreign, to me at least, world of competitive tennis in reading this book and through Rothenberg’s excellent journalism, engaging prose and respect for Osaka and women’s tennis, I feel like I understand not only more about her, but why I admire her so much.
In reading her story, I feel more confident in identifying myself as a tennis fan, because even if I don’t know so much about the game, it’s the game that gave us so many incredible women who change narratives, challenge culture and raise their voices. And when I think about fandom in that way, it’s something I absolutely connect with. This book helped me to continue to realise that in doing fandom differently, we continue to find more ways to be fans of sport that give us what we need in our own different ways. So is tennis now for me? What’s not to be a fan about it?
Naomi Osaka — her journey to finding her power and her voice by Ben Rothenberg is available now.