By Jason Cruz
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Welcome to another edition of The Layup Drill. This month, we look at the hellos and goodbyes in sports.
Hello – Osaka wins U.S. Open
Naomi Osaka defeated Serena Williams at the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York in September. At the age of 20, she was the first Japanese tennis player to win the Grand Slam. Osaka, who is part Japanese and part Haitian, professed that Williams was her hero growing up.
Osaka was on top of the tennis world for the two weeks in New York as she dominated the competition. This included a straight set tournament championship victory over Williams. Osaka’s moment of triumph was overshadowed in part by an outburst from Williams against the umpire. Williams went on a tirade after she was assessed a penalty for allegedly obtaining coaching from the crowd (a violation of the rules). The crowd took issue with the situation by booing the umpire as Williams pled her case. Despite the fiery words from Williams, she did not mean it as disrespect to Osaka. At the end of the match, she embraced Osaka and congratulated her on the win.
Unfortunately for Osaka, her moment of glory became awkward as fans showed their disapproval for the umpire, but it appeared as if they were booing Osaka.
She showed tears of joy when she took the podium after the match to receive her trophy. She started her victory speech by apologizing for her victory.
She recently admitted that the win was not a favorite moment in her life. Despite the victory, beating her childhood idol and the fans reaction due to the conflict between Williams and the umpire left her victory tainted. In a recent interview at the China Open tennis tournament, Osaka said, “The memory of the U.S. Open is a little bit bittersweet. Like right after, the day after, I really didn’t want to think about it because it wasn’t necessarily the happiest memory for me.”
While Osaka may have experienced bad feelings for her win, sponsors have gravitated toward her as a result. Deemed the “new face of tennis,” Osaka signed new endorsement deals with Adidas and Nissan. Osaka remarked that being a “brand ambassador” for Nissan comes full circle since her father used to drive a Nissan while growing up. Adidas came through as she extended her contract with the company, which now is valued at $8.5 million per year. It’s the richest in the history of women’s tennis, which says a lot considering that Serena Williams has been a longtime sponsor of Nike.
Although she was born in Japan, Osaka’s family moved to the United States when she was 3 years old. She turned pro when she was just 16 years old. At only 20, Osaka is reaching the top of her game at a very young age.
Goodbye – Kuma says goodbye to Seattle
As the Seattle Mariners’ season ended with another year without making it to the playoffs, the team said goodbye to starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, as he decided to continue his career in Japan. Iwakuma attempted a comeback for almost two years due to recurring shoulder issues. However, he experienced several setbacks throughout the process. Nevertheless, Iwakuma was able to make it back to rehabilitation starts for the Mariners’ minor league teams, with brief stints in August. Yet, Iwakuma decided that the next step would be to return to Japan to finish out his career.
Iwakuma signed with the Mariners from Japan in 2012. At 31 years of age, he contributed in his first season with the club, posting 9 wins and 5 losses. The next year, 2013, was his best year as he posted 14 wins and 6 losses and became an All-Star for the American League. He finished 3rd in the Cy Young voting for the best pitcher in the American League. The last season he played in was early last season where he did not win a game in 6 starts for the team.
Prior to injuries, he was stoic and a reliable number two starter behind the team’s ace, Felix Hernandez. The two provided a much-needed 1-2 punch for the Mariners, as they sought pitching stability. Iwakuma made just one All-Star team during his major league career with the Mariners, but the accolades did not equate to the value he had for a baseball team in need of solid starting pitching.
The most memorable moment from Iwakuma’s career has to be his no-hitter during an afternoon game against the Baltimore Orioles on Aug. 12, 2015. In that game, Iwakuma struck out seven in a 9-inning performance, where he did not allow a hit. It was special for him since it was one of the few times that his family traveled to Seattle to watch him pitch.
Iwakuma said goodbye on Sept. 26 during the Mariners’ final homestand of the season, as he threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Catching for Iwakuma for his last pitch on the mound was friend Ichiro Suzuki.
The loss of Iwakuma hurts the Mariners’ pitching rotation next year, as the team will once again struggle to find help with pitchers. Iwakuma was another one of the great players coming from Japan. Kenji Johjima, Kazuhiro Sasaki, and, of course, Ichiro Suzuki have all been bright stars for the Mariners. Iwakuma will be missed, but it may be poetic that he ends his career in Japan where he started.
Hello again – Tiger makes triumphant return to form
Tiger Woods won the 2018 TOUR Championship in Atlanta, making it number 80 in his career of PGA Tour wins. It was the first since returning from numerous back surgeries, injuries, and personal struggles. Woods was emotional after sinking the final putt on the 18th green. Arms outstretched in the air in triumph, Woods reflected on what it meant that his kids could see his joy in playing golf. In a post-event interview, he talked about how his kids, 11 and 9, associated golf with him being in pain due to the numerous injuries. He was happy that they could see how good he is at the sport and it is something that brings him joy.
Fans, as they had when he was a young phenom, followed him throughout the course. The sea of people following Woods on the final hole was enormous.
Despite his past faults, the fans chanted and cheered his name, as it remained atop the leaderboard. The cheers grew louder when it became clear he would finally break through the drought and secure a tour victory.
The final round of the PGA Tour tournament occurred on a Sunday, when the NFL occupies the television sets of many people. However, many sports fans turned their television to golf —specifically to watch Tiger finish off the tournament.
The rejuvenation of Woods’ career is amazing, considering the extent of his back problems in a sport where it is required that he twist and contort his body when he swings the golf club. There is also his admitted self-doubt about ever coming back to a level where he could win a major tournament.
Everyone loves a comeback story in sports. Woods is a special one considering his level of dominance in the sport of golf prior to his back injuries. Then, there was his personal indiscretions which shed light on a personal life which shattered his clean image. At one point, Woods was unable to swing a club and suffered several setbacks on his road to recovery. Time will tell whether Woods’ back will hold up to maintain at the level he currently is playing.
Jason can be reached at email@example.com.