Japanese tennis superstar Ôsaka Naomi recently made a major career decision when she decided to leave talent agency IMG to start her own company, Evolve, with her agent Stuart Duguid. Pundits have speculated a lot about his potential motives, but his mother Tamaki has her own opinion on the matter. “Being part of a big agency, she was limiting herself,” she says. “Today she is her own boss, so she can do whatever she wants. She adds with a laugh, “Naomi likes to be in control of her life. She got it from me! »
Arriving at a turning point in her life, Tamaki recently wrote her autobiography, Tunnel no mukô (“The Other End of the Tunnel”), which touches on defining aspects of her life such as her childhood in Hokkaido, her marriage to Leonard Francois, an American of Haitian descent, as well as the way she raised her two daughters in the goal of becoming professional tennis players. Her book tells the courageous and inspiring story of a Japanese woman determined to live her life as she sees fit. I recently sat down with Tamaki at her home in Florida to discuss her work, her family, and her future plans.
YAMAGUCHI NAOMI You have a busy schedule. How did you gather the energy to write such a revealing biography?
OSAKA TAMAKI The first thing I did was just look at all my old photos and videos. They took me back to different stages of my life, and so when I started writing, the words just came out. There were many events to cover, but I felt it was necessary to tell everything.
Fascination for Serena and Venus
YN It is well known that your husband Leonard was still a novice in tennis when he started coaching Mari and Naomi from an early age. He had been inspired by the story of Richard Williams, who also had little knowledge of the sport when he started coaching his daughters Serena and Venus. However, I was surprised by one of the revelations in your book. You say in effect that your husband started training your eldest daughter Mari when she was still an infant.
O.T. It is true that he helped her in particular to develop her balance and the strength of her core, but then it was only a question of games, and not of any training. He was always much more interested in sports than me. At the time, he often played football, basketball, cycling and running. He was already dreaming of making our children athletes. But when the Williams sisters took center stage, that vague idea turned into a concrete goal.
YN Mari was 3 years old and Naomi was approaching her second year when Serena Williams won her first US Open at the age of 17. After watching Venus win the title the following year, you and your husband decided to raise your daughters with the goal of becoming professional tennis players. What inspired you in the Williams sisters and in this sport?
O.T. We were fascinated by Serena and Venus. Two black teenage sisters, in a sport then dominated by white athletes, were traveling around the world, meeting all kinds of people, experiencing new cultures. It was a life that most girls their age could only dream of. I honestly felt that a professional tennis player was an ideal profession.
This lifestyle, made of travels and meetings around the world, was an even stronger motivation for us than money, even if it also played in our decision, since we had a lot of trouble making ends meet. . At the time, I was helping my husband with his imported clothing store while working part-time in the call center of a mail-order company. We could only sleep three hours a night. But watching the prowess of the Williams sisters allowed us to forget all our worries while dreaming of a better future for our little girls. Our hopes were particularly high for Mari, who was already very athletic for her age.
Shy but determined
YN Naomi often comes off as shy and introverted, but she has been able to use her superstar status to draw public attention to social issues. In 2020, she sent a strong message about racial injustices by displaying her support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and in 2021, she skipped some press conferences in order to highlight mental health issues. athletes. What is your opinion as a mother?
O.T. She is indeed of a very shy nature. Not kidding, she tended to spend all her free time at home, playing video games or chatting with her sister. Her success, however, allowed her to meet various people, including her boyfriend as well as personalities from the sports world or other fields, which gradually brought her out of her shell.
She remains fiercely independent. The idea of wearing masks bearing the names of victims of racist crimes or police violence during the US Open came entirely from her. Several people around her had expressed their fears of potential repercussions, but far from deterring her, it only further strengthened her determination to do so. On this point, she is like me. Telling her not to do something only motivates her more.
“There is no one way to success”
YN What are you doing now that Naomi has climbed all the tennis ladders and Mari has moved away from the sport? I heard that you were building a kindergarten and a school in Haiti.
O.T. Yes, we are investing a lot of time and energy in this project. We are actually building on a kindergarten established by a group of volunteers that we set up when we lived in Osaka. It has now developed into a tennis academy, with courts, kindergarten and school, as well as a large dormitory. We have more than 200 students surrounded by a dedicated team of teachers, coaches, and of course caretakers and cleaners. It is now a real small community. Our dream is to train the professional tennis players of tomorrow.
Currently, one of the boys from our academy is studying at a high school in Osaka. We hope to continue this and offer more students the opportunity to study and train in other countries. However, it is quite complex, whether from a financial or logistical point of view, to send young Haitians to live abroad. We are currently grappling with the question of financing these exchange programs and debating how best to support our students when they are abroad. There are many obstacles to overcome, but we are determined to make our students’ dreams come true.
YN Naomi is a role model for children in Haiti, Japan and beyond. His story also shows parents that elements such as nationality or family background are not barriers to education from an early age in order to be a professional athlete. What do you say to mothers and fathers who carry such hopes for their children?
O.T. I will tell them to be flexible in their efforts to achieve this goal. There isn’t just one path to success. Our decisions often reflected our difficult financial situation. But someone with a little more money and connections will probably have other options available to them. The most important thing is to invest yourself 120% in whatever approach you choose. Things won’t always work out as planned, but if you’re fully dedicated to the task, you can deal with the inevitable problems that will arise, and you’ll have a much better chance of achieving your goal.
You always have to take a step back. Deciding to raise your child to be a professional tennis player does not give you the right to put all your expectations on the back of your son or daughter. I’ve seen many overly competitive parents berate their kids for losing a match, and even swing their tennis bag across the court in a fit of uncontrolled rage. You risk suffocating your child by focusing only on winning. Rather than aiming for glory right away, it is better for young athletes to stay humble and determined.
(Banner photo: Ôsaka Tamaki posing with her two daughters Naomi [droite] and Mari. All photos are by Ôsaka Tamaki, unless otherwise stated)