Japanese ace Naomi Osaka, 22, has broken the record for the most a female athlete has ever earned in a year, according to Forbes, joining rival Serena Williams as the only two women on the annual list of the 100 top sport earners.
Despite not currently holding a Grand Slam title and slipping to 10th in the women’s tennis rankings, the former world number one registered the most lucrative ever year for a sportswoman in 2019, earning $1.4 million more than Williams, Forbes reported.
Osaka was a year old when Williams, who is now 38, won her first major title, and the newcomer only picked up her first Grand Slam trophy when she beat the American in the 2018 US Open final, causing the veteran to earn three code violations in a bad-tempered defeat.
Russian Maria Sharapova, who retired earlier this year to her lavish beachside home in Florida, held the record before Williams, earning just under $30 million in 2015.
The haul, announced at the end of a week when she appeared on the cover of GQ Japan in a mask, puts Osaka 29th on the annual list, four places ahead of Williams.
Their inclusion represents the first time since 2016 that two women have joined the top 100 highest paid athletes in the world as decided by Forbes, although their earnings are certain to be dwarfed by the leading tennis players included when the full list is revealed next week.
Roger Federer was the highest earner in the sport last year, collecting an astonishing $93.4 million that included enormous backing from the likes of clothing line Uniqlo, with whom he has a $300 million long-term deal.
Williams has been the top female earner for each of the past four years, earning between $18 million and $29 million before tax each year, as well as around $300 million from endorsers throughout her long career.
Osaka has had a rapid rise to fame and fortune, including a collaboration last year with Uninterrupted, the “athlete empowerment” brand co-founded by basketball star LeBron James, who finished eighth on last year’s list with estimated earnings of $89 million.
She confessed to being “lost for words” when she spotted herself on a huge Nike billboard outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where she often cheers on James and her beloved NBA team the LA Lakers.
Sports business professor David Carter said that Osaka’s “great back story” – her family moved from Japan to New York when she was three, where her father tried to emulate Williams’ father, Richard, by teaching her tennis from a young age – was an integral part of her allure for advertisers.
“To those outside the tennis world, Osaka is a relatively fresh face,” he told Forbes, nodding to her decision to represent Japan despite spending most of her life at tennis academies in Florida.
“Combine that with being youthful and bicultural – two attributes that help her resonate with younger, global audiences – and the result is the emergence of a global sports marketing icon.”
Osaka has become a champion on both of the occasions when she has progressed beyond the fourth round at a Grand Slam, winning the 2018 US Open as a 20-year-old before again emerging victorious at the Australian Open the following January.
That made her the first Asian player to reach number one in the rankings and earned her more than $4 million in prize money, although her plans to represent her country and brands including US multinational Procter and Gamble at this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo have been put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sharapova’s surprise departure and Williams’ mooted retirement may have worked in Osaka’s favour after Nike won a bidding war with Adidas to supply her apparel, paying $10 million for the privilege until 2025.
In a concession that was not afforded to the likes of Sharapova, Andre Agassi and John McEnroe, the sportswear giant allow her to wear patches from other sponsors on her court attire.
She has used the opportunity to strike deals with brands including All Nippon Airways, MasterCard and ramen noodle maker Nissin Foods, all of whom are keen to appeal to a US tennis audience that has been found to have an average household income of a hefty $216,000.
Sharapova, who beat Williams to win Wimbledon as a 17-year-old in 2004, was the highest-paid female athlete for 11 years, and the best-paid stars in women’s sport have always been tennis players since Forbes began compiling the rundown in 1990.
The announcement that Osaka had toppled Williams sparked rows between some fans. “Her achievement is only relevant because she surpassed Serena,” said one, referring to the veteran’s incredible collection of 39 Grand Slam titles.
“She’s a much better person and a lot humbler than Serena,” replied an Osaka supporter, before one critic pointed out: “The prize money went up.
“I like Osaka just fine but she doesn’t otherwise belong in the same sentence as Serena, Steffi Graf or any GOAT. Just no.”
Footballers made up the top three earners last year. Lionel Messi finished top with $127 million, followed by Cristiano Ronaldo, who was reportedly on the verge of becoming the first athlete ever to earn $1 billion across their career earlier this year, and Neymar, who is the most expensive footballer of all time.