Before starting her title defense at the US Open next week in Queens, Naomi Osaka helped renovate her own childhood tennis courts in the neighborhood.
On Thursday, the four-time Grand Slam champion celebrated the unveiling of the newly renovated courts where she trained aged 3 to 8 at Detective Keith L. Williams Park in Jamaica, Queens. In 2020, BODYARMOR, one of Osaka’s sponsors and the official sports drink of the US Open, pledged to renovate the tennis courts to inspire young athletes in the local community of Queens where Osaka made its debut. The event included a children’s tennis clinic where they performed several drills on groundstrokes, volleys and serves.
“It was really an incredible feeling,” Osaka said on Friday. “I haven’t been back since I moved to Florida, so maybe about eight or more.
“I would say the most impressive part about it is that all the people I remembered as a kid were still there. They all came out. They all told me to call my mom and call my dad because they had so much to tell them.
“Honestly, it was like a big family. Everyone there looked after me when I was a kid. Seeing them all healthy and happy was an incredible feeling. “
The brand has also collaborated with Naomi’s sister, Mari Osaka, on the development of artwork bordering the courts that incorporate colors and symbols that are meaningful to Naomi. New York graffiti artist Mast contributed to the work.
“I have seen with my own eyes how playing sports can have a positive impact on the lives of children,” Osaka said in a statement. “It has been extremely rewarding working with BODYARMOR to revitalize the same tennis courts that I grew up playing on. And the fact that BODYARMOR is also a Queens-based company makes this initiative even cooler and more meaningful to me. Updating these courts means so much – local high schools use them for practice and competition, the community comes here to play – the benefits will be long lasting. ”
Osaka is the No. 3 seed at the Open behind world No. 1 Ash Barty and No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka. She will start playing against former US Open junior champion Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic, whom she also beat in the first round of the 2020 Australian Open.
Osaka, who came from a set down to beat Victoria Azarenka in last year’s final, is in the lower half of the table along with Azarenka, Sabalenka, No.5 seed Elina Svitolina and the seed. No. 8 Barbora Krejcikova.
Last year, she wore seven masks in seven matches to draw attention to African American victims of police violence. This year, she has drawn attention to mental health issues by withdrawing from Roland Garros for refusing to give daily press conferences.
“I feel like there are a lot of things that I did wrong at that time, but I’m also the type of person who is very present,” she said on Friday. “Like whatever I feel, I’ll say it or do it.” I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I think there are a lot of things that I have learned to do better. Of course, I don’t think the same situation will happen again.
“I would say maybe I think about it a little more in the way that, like, I didn’t know how big a deal this would become.”
She then skipped Wimbledon before returning to the Tokyo Olympics, where she lost in the third round. She returned to the North American hard courts this month and donated her Cincinnati cash prize to the victims of the earthquake in Haiti.
“Again, [Osaka is] leading the way, ”ESPN’s Pam Shriver said this week on a conference call. “It’s not that athletes and mental health weren’t discussed, it’s Michael Phelps, other athletes who struggled long before the pandemic.”
When it comes to his chances on the pitch, seven-time major champion John McEnroe believes Osaka can win a third US Open, but need to win a close one along the way to build confidence.
“I think she’s the best hard court player in the world,” said McEnroe. “Obviously, not everything that happens can benefit him. Your question is: can she overcome it, is she in the frame of mind to overcome it mentally and physically, not having played much, having essentially moved away from the French and Wimbledon, then all that l ‘accompanied to Japan, lighting the cauldron, et cetera, then lose.
“She must win a loved one. She lost two match points against Muguruza at the Australian, took that away. Then she launched. I think if she’s gonna do well, it’s gonna have to be one of those situations …
“If she does one of those games, I think she could win it. I also think there are probably 10 other girls who could also win.
This post was updated at 9 a.m.ET on August 28.