In tennis, it's imperative to be able to dart forward, shuffle from side to side and sprint backwards in a matter of seconds, hence the players' perpetual bounce on the court, even when they're standing still.
Naomi Osaka has that characteristic spring in her step—and she's been adept at keeping her fans on their toes, too.
The four-time Grand Slam winner, who's been dating rapper Cordae since 2019, shared Jan. 11 that she is pregnant with her first child—meaning tennis will be without the mercurial champion for awhile longer than expected.
Tournament organizers had announced just a day before that Osaka had withdrawn from the 2023 Australian Open, prolonging what had been an almost-five-month absence from the WTA Tour since losing in the first round of the U.S. Open in September, after which injuries curtailed her season.
But let's just say, she made the most of her time off.
"The past few years have been interesting to say the least, but I find that its the most challenging times in life that may be the most fun," the 25-year-old wrote on social media, in both English and Japanese, posting a sonogram photo along with her statement. "These few months away from the sport has really given me a new love and appreciation for the game I've dedicated my life to. I realize that life is so short and I don't take any moments for granted, everyday is a new blessing and adventure.
"I know that I have so much to look forward to in the future, one thing I'm looking forward to is for my kid to watch one of my matches and tell someone, 'that's my mom,' haha,'" she concluded. "2023 will be a year that'll be full of lessons for me and I hope I'll see you guys in the start of the next one cause I'll be at Aus 2024. Love you all infinitely."
Or, perhaps, back. Eventually.
Not afraid to share where she's at at any given moment, emotionally speaking, Osaka has become just as famous for her mixed feelings about tennis as she is for the skills that propelled her to No. 1 in the world in 2019. And thanks to her off-the-court pursuits, she's been the top-earning female athlete three years in a row even when she isn't winning, Forbes calculating that only $1.1 million of the athlete-model-entrepreneur's $51.1 million haul in 2022 came from prize money.
"I felt like it was necessary, but I kind of felt ashamed in that moment because, as an athlete, you're kind of told to be strong and push through everything," she told Robin Roberts on Good Morning America last month, reflecting on her decision to bare her struggles to the world in 2021. "But I learned it's better to regroup and address the feelings you have in that moment, and you can come back stronger."
Osaka, whose mom Tamaki is Japanese and dad Leonard is Haitian, first tempted critics from the shut-up-and-serve crowd when she and Cordae joined protestors in Minneapolis days after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. She subsequently started speaking out about racism and other pressing social justice matters.
Osaka told Vogue that October, "I think I confuse people...I always grew up with a little bit more Japanese heritage and culture, but I'm Black, and I live in America, and I personally didn't think it was too far-fetched when I started talking about things that were happening here. There are things going on here that really scare me."
Or as she put it to WSJ Magazine, "I hate when random people say athletes shouldn't get involved with politics and just entertain. Firstly, this is a human rights issue. Secondly, what gives you more right to speak than me? By that logic, if you work at IKEA you are only allowed to talk about [furniture]?"
When she was fined $15,000 for skipping her first-round post-win press conference and subsequently pulled out of the 2021 French Open, she also unwittingly became a beacon for athletes who've found themselves torn between business as usual and tending to their mental health.
Osaka shared on social media that she had been struggling with depression since the 2018 U.S. Open—where her first Grand Slam championship was hard-fought but ultimately overshadowed by Serena Williams' emotional outburst in the final—and regularly experienced "huge waves of anxiety" before talking to the media. So, she decided at the French Open that she'd prefer not to.
"For the first time, I had press at my house and at my hotel, that had never happened before," she later told Self. "It was a strange feeling and I was shocked that people cared that much."
She also pulled out of 2021 Wimbledon the following month to, according to her agent, take some "personal time with friends and family."
Family includes Tamako, Leonard and her older sister Mari, an artist who also used to play tennis professionally. (Leonard, inspired by how Venus and Serena's father Richard Williams engineered their rise, was his daughters' first teacher, hitting balls on the public courts of Long Island, N.Y.)
And for almost four years, personal time has included Cordae, ever since they exchanged numbers in 2019 and met up at a Los Angeles Clippers home game for their first date.
"We were on FaceTime trying to find each other because the arena was so big," Osaka recalled to GQ in 2021. "And I just remember seeing that there were so many people who wanted to take a picture with him. And I just thought it was really cool how friendly and welcoming he was with everyone."
Tennis admittedly wasn't Cordae's sport and he wasn't familiar with Osaka's line of work—but that changed fast.
"I let her do her thing," he told TMZ as the U.S. Open got underway that September, her opening-round victory the first tennis match he'd ever witnessed. "Just show love, motivate. But she know what she doing."
In Vogue's January 2021 issue, Osaka described herself as "a bit of a loner, but not by choice. I would like more friends, but I'm not forcing it. I don't like to go to parties, because I'm not a good dance, and they're loud and you sort of shout at a person to talk to them. I'm not that great at small talk. Mainly I'm a homebody, and my boyfriend records all the time, but he's an even bigger homebody than me."
Some might say she's pretty great at big talk, able to speak and write profoundly on the topics that matter to her, even if she's uncomfortable with the required chit-chat athletes are expected to make at events.
"I always try to push myself to speak up for what I believe to be right, but that often comes at a cost of great anxiety," she wrote in an essay for TIME that summer. I feel uncomfortable being the spokesperson or face of athlete mental health as it's still so new to me and I don't have all the answers. I do hope that people can relate and understand it's O.K. to not be O.K., and it's O.K. to talk about it."
At the time, Osaka was looking ahead to the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics, where she was given the honor of lighting the cauldron to mark the official start of the Games in her home country. (As she shared in her eponymous Netflix documentary, she got plenty of crap from people who didn't understand why she played for Japan, where she was born. "I don't choose America," she recalled, "and suddenly people are like, 'Your Black card is revoked.' And it's like, African American isn't the only Black, you know?")
Osaka's decision to take a step back from the game she had devoted almost her entire life to, combined with how aglow she seemed to look everywhere but on a tennis court—such as on her first-ever Met Gala red carpet in September 2021—had tennis pundits wondering whether she might just end up calling it a career.
But while the peanut gallery was busy figuring all that out, Osaka was busy relearning how to enjoy her life. As 2022 got underway, she started therapy ("I'm super happy that I found the right person who really understands me and has been incredibly helpful," she told Self) and focused on her various off-court endeavors, including her Play Academy, whose mission is to empower young girls through sports, skincare line Kinlò, sports agency Evolve and production company Hana Kuma, launched in partnership with LeBron James' SpringHill.
When Cordae released his second album, Bird's Eye View, in January 2022, Osaka dropped a rare public comment, captioning a photo of them cuddling on the couch, "Getting closer to someone and seeing how much love and dedication they put into their craft is truly inspiring. Makes you feel like some people are born to do certain things, @cordae you're a star and a light, quite literally brighten up every room you walk in (or maybe it's your hair lol)."
He duly replied, "My MUHF--KIN LADY !!!! I LOVE U 2 DEATH !! U TRULY MY RIDE OR DIE BONNIE AND CLYDE JUST WAY MORE FLY."
And Osaka resumed playing tennis, slowly but surely rediscovering her on-court smile even if she hasn't yet recovered the form that once made her so dominant.
After a third-round defeat at the 2022 Australian Open, she told reporters she was having "more fun on the court." Still, an audible heckler during her second-round loss at Indian Wells in March threatened to derail her joy, Osaka comparing the experience to the crowd behavior in 2001 that prompted the Williams sisters to boycott the tournament for 14 years.
But just weeks later she made it to her first final in more than a year at the Miami Open, and though she lost to her friend (and soon-to-be world No. 1) Iga Swiatek, she cried happy tears.
"I really had a blast on court for the first time in a while," Osaka told Self afterward. "I have a new perspective and I'm so appreciative that I have this career and platform. I'm also really energized and motivated."
Reflecting on how far she'd come since going public with her struggles, she told People last April, "The biggest lesson I've learned is to try to be present in each moment. It's easy to lose sight of how far you've come, but I've been prioritizing trying to live in the moment and enjoy the journey."
And her spirits remained high as the year went on, the athlete tweeting July 30, "Just went through my old notes from last year...wow I'm basically a whole different person now," and on Aug. 4, "I'm really at peace with myself. I didn't think I would ever feel like this, it's kinda fascinating lol."
She also funneled some of her well-earned wisdom into a children's book, The Way Champs Play, posting a photo of her pup Butta appearing to scan the brightly illustrated pages.
"For me, I just remember being really inspired by books growing up," Osaka explained to Roberts on GMA last month, "so just to hopefully pass that feeling on to the next generation is really cool."
And it turns out the next generation is on its way, ready to point at the tennis court—or the bookshelf—and say, "That's my mom."