Tennis star Osaka Naomi is a force on and off the court, making headlines with her four Grand Slam titles and record-breaking earnings, as well as her statements about racial inequality and mental health awareness. Her mother, Osaka Tamaki, was by her side with every step. We recently sat down with the elder Osaka to talk about her new autobiography.
Japanese tennis superstar Osaka Naomi recently took another significant step in her career when she announced she was leaving talent agency IMG and starting her own company, Evolve, with her agent, Stuart Duguid. Pundits have speculated about Osaka’s motivation, but four-time Grand Slam winner Osaka Tamaki’s mother has her own opinion. “She was restricted because she was with a big agency,” explains the elder Osaka. “But she’s her own boss now and can do whatever she wants.” With a chuckle, he adds, “Naomi likes to be in charge of her life. She gets that from me.”
At a turning point in her own life, Tamaki recently penned an autobiography, Ton’eru no mukō e (The Other End of the Tunnel), which touches on such defining aspects of her life as growing up in her hometown of Hokkaidō, marrying Leonard Francois, a Haitian-American, and raising her two daughters to play professional tennis. Her story is a brave and inspiring story of a Japanese woman living life on her own terms. I recently sat down with Tamaki at her Florida home to talk about her book, her family, and new projects that she has on the horizon.
YAMAGUCHI NAOMI You have a busy schedule. How did you find the energy to write such a revealing autobiography?
OSAKA TAMAKI The first thing I did was go through all my old photos and videos. This brought me back to the various events of my life and as I started to write, the words just flowed out of me. There was so much to talk about, but I felt like I had to write it all down.
YAMAGUCHI It is known that her husband Leonard was a beginner at tennis when he started coaching Mari and Naomi when they were little girls, but was inspired to do so by Richard Williams, who also had no experience in the sport when he started coaching the daughters Serena and train Venus. However, I was surprised when you revealed that your husband began preparing your eldest daughter Mari to be an athlete when she was a toddler.
OSAKA He would do things to help her develop balance and core strength, but it was more play than anything that could be called real exercise. He’s always been a lot sportier than me. Back then, he was always out and about with things like football, basketball, cycling and running. He certainly dreamed of raising children to be athletes. But when the Williams sisters burst onto the scene, it went from a vague idea to a concrete goal.
YAMAGUCHI Mari was three and Naomi not yet two when Serena won her first US Open at the tender age of 17. After watching Venus win the title the following year, you and your husband decided to raise your daughters to be professional tennis players. What inspired you about the Williams sisters and the sport?
OSAKA We were impressed with Serena and Venus. Here were two teenage Black sisters in a white-dominated sport, traveling the world, meeting different people and experiencing new cultures. It was a life most girls her age could only fantasize about. I honestly felt like being a tennis player was a dream job.
The globetrotting lifestyle was more of a motivator for us than the money, although that had an appeal as we narrowly missed it. At that time I was helping my husband with his import clothing business and working part-time in the call center of a mail order company. We got by with about three hours of sleep most nights. However, the sight of the Williams sisters distracted us from our struggles to make ends meet and made us dream of a brighter future for our little girls. Our hopes were highest for Mari, who was very sporty even as a little girl.
YAMAGUCHI Naomi likes to portray herself as a shy introvert, but she’s learned to use her superstar status to draw attention to social issues. In 2020, she made a strong statement on racial injustice with her support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and in 2021 she boycotted press conferences to raise awareness of athlete mental health. What do you take as her mother?
OSAKA She is extremely shy by nature. No joke, she used to spend all her free time at home either playing video games or chatting with her sister. However, her success has brought her into contact with various people, including her boyfriend and influential figures in sports and other fields, which has slowly brought her out of her shell.
She remains strongly independent. The idea of wearing masks bearing the names of victims of racial injustice or police brutality at the US Open was entirely her own. There were people around her who expressed concern about possible backlash, but instead of dissuading them, it made them more determined to go through with it. She’s like me in that sense. Telling her not to do something only motivates her to do it more.
YAMAGUCHI What are you doing now that Naomi has moved up to the big leagues of tennis and Mari has left the sport? I heard you are starting a kindergarten and a school in Haiti.
OSAKA Yes, we put a lot of time and energy into the project. We’re actually building on a kindergarten that was started by a volunteer group that we started when we lived in Osaka. Since then it has grown into a tennis academy with tennis courts, a kindergarten and school, and a large dormitory. There are over 200 students and a dedicated staff that includes teachers, coaches, and security and janitorial staff. It’s now its own little community. Our dream is to eventually produce competitive tennis players.
At the moment, a boy from the academy is studying at a high school in Osaka. We hope to expand this and give more students the opportunity to study and train in other countries. However, sending Haitian children to live abroad is challenging, both financially and logistically. We are currently struggling to fund exchange programs and how we can best support students during their stay abroad. There are many hurdles to overcome, but we are fully committed to making students’ dreams come true.
YAMAGUCHI Naomi is a role model for children in Haiti, Japan and elsewhere. Her story also shows parents that things like nationality and family background are not barriers to raising a child to be a professional athlete. What would you say to moms and dads who have dreams like this?
OSAKA I would say be flexible as you work towards your goal. There is no one path to success. Our decisions reflected our tight financial situation. But for someone with a bit more money or personal connections, other options are available. The most important thing is to put 120 percent of yourself into whatever approach you choose. It won’t go exactly according to plan, but if you put your heart and soul into it, you can overcome the inevitable hurdles and have a better chance of reaching your goal.
However, you need to keep things in perspective. Deciding to raise your child to be a professional tennis player does not give you the right to impose all of your expectations on your son or daughter. I’ve seen overly ambitious parents berate their kids for losing a game or throw their tennis bag across the court in a fit of anger. You risk suffocating your child by focusing too much on winning. Instead of striving for glory early on, it’s better for a young athlete to stay hungry and humble.
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Osaka Tamaki poses with her daughters Mari [left] and Naomi [right]. All photos courtesy of Osaka Tamaki unless otherwise noted.)