This post was first published in the now-closed online journal About Times for International Women’s Day 2019. It now needs a new home and so I’m re-posting it here.
There’s a new Grand Slam tennis champion and her name is Naomi Osaka. She’s World Number 1 at the age of 21. She has two Grand Slam titles to her name. She’s the first player on the WTA tour to win her first two Slams back to back since Jennifer Capriati in 2001.
If you’ve heard all this about Naomi Osaka before, then you’ll also know that her off-court personality seems to be as noteworthy as her on-court success. She’s a little bit awkward, her interviewers write; very shy. She lacks self confidence. She doesn’t talk much, but when she does, she has an unfiltered manner that’s a breath of fresh air. She’s quirky. Kooky. A little off-beat. She’s fire on the court; off it, she’s unequivocally her weird and wonderful self. She’s interesting and not a little bemusing.
Maybe Naomi Osaka is all those things. But they don’t make her an anomaly. They show that, in the whirlwind of the trophies, the tour and her impossible talent, she’s simply a young woman finding her feet in the world; awkwardly, shyly, struggling with her self-confidence. That resonates with a lot of people.
What’s mostly unsaid in the conversation about Osaka, though, is that she’s an introvert is an extroverted world. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, says we tailor our personalities to meet the Extrovert Ideal; to present ourselves as engaging, inspiring, magnetic – and therefore likeable.
For some, this style of self-presentation is completely natural. For others it takes a lot more energy. And Osaka seems aware of the cost of getting it wrong; that likeability remains a non-negotiable for women. “I still feel like everyone’s still waiting for me to, like, talk and stuff, and I’m not,” she told tennis journalist Reem Abulleil in 2018, “I don’t want people to think like I’m mean or anything but I just like I get so nervous around people that I just put on my headphones and I walk really fast away from them.”
Shyness and introversion are not the same thing. But when you find yourself tongue-tied in a room full of happily-chatting strangers, or when you blurt out something random to fill a silence, they can feel pretty similar. And when you take the more comfortable route – the safer route – of staying quiet, it’s easy to be misinterpreted as unapproachable. “Appearance is not reality,” writes Cain. “Some people act like extroverts, but the effort costs them in energy, authenticity, even physical health. Others seem aloof or self-contained, but their inner landscapes are rich and full of drama.”
Physiotherapist Laura Penhaul, who worked with Osaka in 2017, understands that an introvert’s quiet reserve is never the whole story. She told The Telegraph “it takes a while to build a rapport with Naomi … For some reason, Naomi has had a belief that she is different to everybody else. She always thinks she has a weird sense of humour. She blurts things out, sometimes they’re unexpected, but it’s a good sense of humour too. She has a lovely heart, and I think she is becoming more confident in who she is.”
But confidence can be a double-edged sword. When you don’t have it, you’re encouraged to develop it. When you do develop it, it can be labelled arrogance before it’s even fully formed. American players Coco Vandeweghe and Danielle Collins both possess natural, unwavering self-confidence. They sit at the opposite end of the scale to Osaka, where words like ‘shy’ are replaced with ‘arrogant’, ‘obnoxious’ and ‘rude’. It’s a delicate balance, with as much public comment on how you choose to speak as there is of how you play. It’s easy to understand why a player might choose a nicely-phrased cliché instead of fully-authentic self-expression in order to protect herself from such scrutiny.
Maybe things are changing though. It’s Osaka’s dry sense of humour, her unfiltered self-reflection and, above all, her authenticity that makes her utterly beloved by players, press and her enormous global fan base. You do not win tennis Grand Slams without being supremely talented, dedicated and ruthless in the pursuit of your goals. But for Osaka, that doesn’t mean sacrificing who she is and her own happiness along the way.
Naomi Osaka is a role model for a new generation. Young women around the world are watching her find her voice in real time, while letting her Grand Slam titles do the talking. They’ll learn they can speak up and succeed, too. She shows it’s good to be yourself, whether that fits the extroverted cultural mould or not. It’s good to be authentic, because that’s how you reach people and they’ll respect you for it. It’s good to be a little off-beat. “Everyone is so different from each other and that’s what makes it interesting,” Osaka says. “Imagine how boring life would be if everyone was the same”.