Love all around: Naomi Osaka serves up lessons of persistence and triumph

August 29, 2022 | By Vicki Hyman

A four-time Grand Slam winner, Naomi Osaka has many victories to savor, but her most treasured may be a little-seen match on a green clay court against a longtime opponent — her older sister, Mari.

Coached from a young age by their father, Osaka had been following in her sister’s footsteps, she recounted at a panel discussion  Wednesday night in New York City. Every day, she played her sister. Every day, she lost 6-0. (“If you don’t follow tennis, that’s like the worst score.”) And every day, she told her sister, “I don’t care, I’m going to beat you tomorrow.” Slowly, she started getting better, and one day, she beat Mari 6-4. “It took a very long time, but it was fun. It was challenging, but it was fun … I’ll count it as my best victory ever.” She paused. “I’m sorry, but she cried.”

The room erupted into laughter.

Osaka, a Mastercard ambassador who returns to Arthur Ashe Stadium for the 2022 U.S. Open this week, was joined onstage by three others who discovered their calling and found success early in their lives: Tristan Mack Wilds, the singer-songwriter and actor who may be best known for his heartbreaking portrayal of a promising student let down by the system in “The Wire”; KJ Moody, a stylist for Beyoncé and creative manager for the megastar’s Parkwood Entertainment; and fellow Mastercard ambassador Alex Scott, the retired women’s soccer star and Olympian turned broadcaster, who hosted the panel.

From left, Alex Scott, Tristan Mack Wilds, KJ Moody and Naomi Osaka. (Photo credit: Wendy Ngala)

They spoke about taking control of their careers, learning from rejection, inspiring a new generation, and the moments that made them.

Osaka, the daughter of a Japanese mother and a Haitian father who was the first Asian player to hold the top singles ranking in tennis, is using the power of her platform to tell stories about people of color through her new media production company, Hana Kuma, in collaboration with LeBron James’ SpringHill Company. The first production is, appropriately enough, about another barrier-breaking woman: Patsy Mink, the first woman of color elected to Congress and the author of Title IX, the 1972 legislation that transformed women’s sports in the U.S.

“I always wanted to test new waters,” Osaka said. “I’m a very challenging person. The harder something seems, the more I want to attempt to do it.”

Scott, who is also biracial, spoke about the struggles she faced when she transitioned from athlete to broadcaster, including racist and sexist online abuse and criticism of her working-class accent.

“I don’t think I had a dream as a young girl that I was going to be a TV host,” she said. “There was no one that looked like me or spoke like me on TV. I had no aspiration, because I couldn’t see it … My inspiration is now I’m opening other doors for young girls and boys, who are from areas like me that I grew up in, to come through and to help that change continue to happen.”

“It would be so much easier if everyone wanted to pave the way for those who came after them. That’s how you leave a legacy. After you’re gone, that’s how people will remember you.”
Naomi Osaka

“It’s not going to be about how much money you make,” agreed Mack, who grew up in public housing on Staten Island. “It’s because of the people you influence, it’s because of the lives that you touch. It’s because of the lights that you light. It’s because of the things that you sparked. That’s what makes you great.”

Mack said he had always enjoyed acting in school plays — “anything to keep me from doing science, history” — but it was the death of a close friend when he was 13 that made him want to leave a greater mark.

When he told his mother he wanted to try professional acting, she was blunt: “I’ll give you some money for some photos, a headshot. I’ll give you a couple of dollars for a MetroCard. But you have to go into the city and do it yourself. It’s going to be hard, but if you fail, you can’t blame anybody but yourself. But if you succeed, the only person that you can blame is yourself. And the rest is history.”

The Texas-born Moody had always been fascinated by fashion, and when he was 19, he Googled “celebrity stylists in Dallas” and found a job with a stylist working for LeAnn Rimes. After a year, he decided to go out on his own, funding his dream with a job as a janitor: “I would work overnight cleaning offices, take that check, go to Nordstrom Rack and buy clothes and do a photo shoot and I would return the clothes … In about six months, I had a portfolio where I looked like I had been styling for six years.”

Moody had two pieces of advice for up-and-comers: First, don’t listen to people who tell you it’s not your time: “When you feel like it’s your time, it’s your time,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how old you are if you are working hard and you feel like you’re talented.” Second, don’t underestimate the value of "no." “That’s always what makes you better. If everything was perfect, you wouldn’t grow. You only get better through the no’s.”

Banner photo credit: Wendy Ngala 

Vicki Hyman, director, communications, Mastercard