By Muyiwa Adetiba
When Naomi Osaka, the young Japanese player lifted the first major tennis trophy of the year on Saturday, I probably couldn’t have been happier if I was her father. There was this relief, this slow easing of tension as the return to her final serve went wild.
Those who followed the final match would affirm that in tennis, as indeed in life, it is never over until it is truly over. She had earlier had three match points on her opponent’s serve. Which meant she needed just one point out of three. But more importantly, she still had the luxury of her own serve should she manage to lose all the three points. Not only did she lose all the three points, she lost her service game and went on to lose the next two games to eventually lose the set.
There were tears in her eyes as she went to her seat. There must have been tears in many eyes too around the world, especially in Japan. As for me, I walked away in disgust and used the interval to do something more meaningful.
This was exactly what happened to Serena Williams just a few days earlier to deny her the opportunity of a 24-Grand Slam equalling feat. To have history-making victory taken away from you at the last minute and literally the last point, must be heart breaking.
For Serena, it was an opportunity to equal a record nobody thought was possible again in the open, more competitive, Era and which at 37 and as a mother, is slowly eluding her. For Naomi, 21, it was an opportunity not only to become world’s number one, but to become the first female player since Jennifer Capriati seventeen years ago, to win back to back Grand Slams after a debut win and the first Asian to win the Australian Open.
Serena didn’t have the opportunity of another set to fight back and her story ended with that loss. Naomi did because she had won the opening set. She took a bathroom break to regroup. Whatever she did to herself during the bathroom break, the Naomi that came out for the final set was drained of all emotions.
She was calm, composed, placid and unflappable. Even when she broke the opponent’s serve earlier in the set, she did not show any emotion outwardly. She was like a zombie, a mechanical machine doing a job it was primed to do. She was at that moment in time, a true Japanese in a positive sense of the name.
For a child who came to the US at the age of three, her connection to her country of birth is amazing. She involuntarily greets and shows deference the Japanese way—to Serena when she beat her at the US Open to win her first Grand Slam, to Kvitova whom she beat at this Australian Open and to tennis officials whenever she needed to address them. Africans curtsy to show deference. Asians, especially Japanese, bend their upper body or neck if it is a brief one.
Although black, Naomi does the latter. But what got to me was when she was asked, after her semi-final win, to speak to her Japanese fans all over the world. She took the microphone and spoke a few words in Japanese without breaking a step. And I wonder how many Nigerians, or Africans, brought to the US at age three would be able to address an audience in their native language. Not many I am sure. And how many would hold on to their African passports and ‘fly the flag’ in their various sporting endeavours? Not many I am sure.
I voiced my observation to a friend who is a tennis buff, as well as being a lawyer, whose bluntness and outspoken nature have denied him a deserved silk. He probably doesn’t miss being a SAN because he is otherwise very successful. He is somewhat ascetic in nature with his life revolving round his practice, his church and his squash. Perhaps his only indulgence is in his choice cars. Before I report his comments on Naomi’s patriotism, let me first report his views on the goings on around the CJN. He says the temple of justice had long been desecrated and removing or keeping Onnoghen would not change anything. He advocates a more radical and holistic approach which would sweep many away. In fact, he says all senior lawyers should be rounded up and shot. A radical exercise that would certainly include him if carried out.
His comment on the attachment of Naomi to Japan despite growing up in the US reflects his radical thinking. ‘She has no reason to become an American and every reason to remain Japanese.’ He said. ‘Ethically, morally, culturally and even technologically, she should feel proud to be Japanese. She probably would have more to lose if she changed her nationality.
She’s lucky to have a country she can be proud of. How many of us would travel with the green passport if we had an option? How many of us can claim to be proud of the developments at home across board’? He has a point. You think of Anthony Joshua, the heavyweight champion whom the British have claimed to be their own and you have to wonder if his career would have blossomed if he had not embraced Britain?
You think of the opportunities that are available to Nigerians growing up in Europe or America that are routinely denied those at home because of corruption. Nigerians are hustling everyday to get European, American or even Asian passports because of the difference it would make in their lives. It should not be so. Nigeria—and her leaders—must do more to make us feel proud of our country too. Both the Executive and the Judiciary need to take a ‘bathroom break’ on this current distraction and regroup.
As it is, even other African countries are beginning to make fun of the light-fingers of our leaders. I will leave you with the summary of a short clip on Nigeria from Kenya with love. It is about a Nigerian Minister of Works who went to Malaysia on a trip. He was taken round the capital city to see highways and beautiful construction works.
The dinner in the evening was at the house of his Malaysian counterpart. It was a beautiful house with swimming pool. The Nigerian asked if he bought it on his salary as Minister. For an answer, the Nigerian was taken to the balcony and shown a highway. ‘You see this highway? ‘ten percent.’ Two years later, the Malaysian returned the visit.
He was taken round the Nigerian capital city through pot holes that started from the tarmac. Dinner was at the palatial home of the Minister. Everything was imported. The Malaysian asked if it all came from his salary. For answer, he too was taken to a balcony and shown a non-existent highway. ‘You see this highway? ‘hundred percent.’
I don’t know which hurts more. The story or the teller.