It all starts with a dream. But dreams have the propensity to stay mere fantasies unless propped astride the bulwark of sweat.
The world has now embraced Naomi Osaka with the gusto it has for champions, her years of toil are but a footnote that only the discerning will sieve through to get to the essence.
Osaka was not even two when her Haiti-born father Leonard Maxime Francois while flipping channels saw the Williams sisters claim the French Open doubles title. He decided his two daughters--Mari is 18 months older--would follow the roadmap charted by the prodigal Richard Williams to groom his wards into the most successful siblings in women’s tennis.
That dream culminated 19 years later into his daughter being crowned the world number one. Osaka is 21 with the reserve one would expect a Hafu (Japanese for mixed-race) to wear like an armour. Japan, the nation she represents, doesn’t have a great history of embracing those that don’t meet its stilted notion of racial purity. Osaka’s mother Tamaki, a Japanese, was labelled a disgrace to the family and did not meet her parents for nearly 15 years after her marriage to Francois. Now, that island nation can no longer entertain disdain for its greatest tennis player ever.
Osaka has not only broken through to the top of the tennis world, she has also forced an ancient culture to re-examine its very fundamentals.
Now, that’s a dream worth living. Now a dream has morphed into a revolution.
What was the domain of great coaches with humungous experience has now been thrust into the lay reader’s psyche through the pop-book Outliers.
In his assimilation of research which had till then been confined to obscure journals, author Malcolm Gladwell outlined the 10 years and 10,000 hours of deliberate perfect practice mantra. It is now commonly known that it takes over a decade of practice with three hours of work every day to achieve world-class status; no matter what field you choose to excel in.
Grooming world-beating athletes needs that kind of vision, that kind of maniacal commitment. Osaka’s success has valuable lessons for an Indian parent looking to groom an elite sportsperson.
The most important lesson is the sheer amount of time it takes. To attain perfection, one has to keep adding layers of systematic work. This has to be age-specific and it has to be sport-specific.
Even though Osaka began playing at the age of three, experts discourage early specialisation and instead stress on activation of the neuro-muscular pathways of the body through multi-sport exposure.
In Osaka’s case, even though she began to learn the skill very early, she did not face the onerous load of giving early results--she didn’t compete much on the junior international tennis federation circuit. Rather, she followed the principle of constant escalation by beginning to take on the bigger girls on the women’s circuit from the age of 14. The interesting bit is that she moved on from the entry-level tournaments without even winning one!
Till date she has just won three WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) titles, just that two of them happen to be Grand Slams.
Too often we see parents and coaches obsessing about early results. Osaka’s success, once again, illustrates that junior results don’t necessarily pan out to senior stardom. That they are not the yardstick to measure an athlete by. This, of course, brings into question the format of support followed by most of our federations which would rather go by the conventional norm of backing those with early success instead of investing in the controversial ask of actually scouting potential.
Either one can follow a periodisation plan that focuses on development of a fledgling physique or lay off to win at the junior level. The 5’11” Osaka obviously didn’t and the focus now reflects in her massive serve and power in the groundstrokes that comes from legs that are pillars of muscle and sinew. The early exposure to better players is the key that allowed her to unlock the quagmire of nerves that’s bound to hit anyone who misses three match points to tie a match at a set apiece (she came back from a 0-2 deficit in the decisive third to seal her Australian Open win).
Even as an athlete looks to reach for the stars that shine eternal instead of settling for a fickle moon with its many seasons, sport stays a capricious deity. The same plan that saw Osaka soar hasn’t really worked for her sister. Such is the ruthlessness of sport that Mari’s WTA player profile page doesn’t even have her picture as she hovers at 332 in the world rankings. Her sister’s are breaking the internet.
The Osaka story has a pertinent learn: miracles happen only if you dare to reach out for them. For success in sport, Robert Browning will always stay relevant: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
The writer is a senior sports writer and the former national sports editor of the Hindustan Times
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