An uncommon dream came true on South Florida courts for Naomi Osaka
By Dave HydeContact Reporter
South Florida Sun Sentinel Columnist
On the last tennis court on the right, before the apartment building where they lived, the big dream started small for Naomi Osaka and her family.
“That was their court,’’ says Bill Adams, the tennis pro at Lakeshore Tennis Park in Miramar and Osaka’s first coach in South Florida. “They’d be there five, six hours a day. Every day.”
Osaka’s father, Leonard Francois, first approached Adams in 2006 with his two, young daughters and the question he would ask coaches across South Florida for the next decade:
“Can you look at my girls?”
Mari was 11 then, Naomi, 9.
“Let’s have a look,’’ Adams said.
Thus began one of the more remarkable stories in sports, one that years later has overtaken the tennis world, heralded an international sports star and returns three miles from the Lakeshore court it started this week with the Miami Open at Hard Rock Stadium.
Along the way: Osaka, now 21, navigated South Florida’s youth tennis scene and rose to No. 1 in the world. The family that couldn’t even afford a dining table in their small apartment now chooses between multi-million-dollar endorsement offers. The dream that began on that common, public court adorns covers from Time to ESPN The Magazine and television shows from “Ellen” to Japan’s “WOWOW.”
Yet what is an amazing story in the world of tennis, and should be the happiest of endings for everyone, is decidedly less so for some of a carousel of South Florida coaches who worked with Osaka back when the future was a fog of dreams.
None of the half-dozen coaches who trained and helped develop the Osaka sisters in South Florida were paid for their work. The family, they all knew, had no money. The mother worked an office job simply to house them and pay the bills.
Some coaches, like Adams and Harold Solomon, remain fine with that arrangement, even if Solomon’s training ended with the daughters abruptly not showing up one day, never to return.
Another coach, Patrick Tauma, expresses disappointment at training the daughters for free for a year and then feeling “manipulated” by the father over the way it ended.
Another coach, Christophe Jean, was more than disappointed that his two years of coaching the daughters with no pay remains unrewarded. He filed a lawsuit in February over a contract signed by Francois, whom everyone calls Max, in 2012, granting the coach 20 percent of the uncertain future earnings from the daughters.
“I didn’t want to do this, but the last time I talked with Max he told me to go get a lawyer,’’ Jean said. “So I got a lawyer.”
Osaka’s public-relations agent at IMG Tennis, Mary Jane Orman, refused to make the father or daughter available for a South Florida Sun Sentinel interview unless no mention of the lawsuit appeared in this article.
Whether the lawsuit has merit, as Jean’s lawyer says, or is a trapping of sudden fame, as the Osaka family’s lawyer framed it, their relationship underscores the unconventional path the family took to the top of the tennis mountain.
Indeed, with no money, no tennis background and against brutally long odds — “infinitesimal,’’ Solomon called them — Francois’s hope for his daughters was based on one successful model. Richard Williams took his daughters, Venus and Serena, from poverty to tennis greatness, too.
Williams blueprint, that was Francois’ blueprint, these South Florida coaches soon learned. Just as the Williams family moved to South Florida for his daughters’ tennis, Francois moved from New York with his wife, Tamaki Osaka, and their daughters.
That completed the family’s world-wide journey. Francois was a college student when he met Tamaki in her native Japan, where their daughters were born. In 2000, they moved to New York, where his Haitian family lived. By 2006, it was on to South Florida to live his tennis dream.
Florida has long been a tennis biosphere for the young and hopeful. The warm weather. The readily available hard and clay courts. The indoor and outdoor venues. The gateway to continents, making it geographically convenient for both teachers and students.
Combined with the advent of home-schooling, as many as 50 tennis academies sprouted in Broward and Palm Beach counties over the past couple of decades, each offering the seductive dream of tennis success to those with talent and, often, money. The estimated price tag to train a player: $40,000 a year, these coaches agree.
That price was beyond Francois’ means. Adams knew that without asking in that first meeting at C.B. Smith Park. But Adams, in retrospect, figures Francois did his homework. In New York he probably heard of Adams, who was a disciple of famed New York tennis coach Harry Hopman.
Adams also coached the developing Williams sisters for a while in Delray Beach. What better way to follow the blueprint than have a coach who was part of it right down to the scant money?
“I don’t run a non-profit program,’’ Adams said. “But sometimes you see someone, see their passion, and if you see they don’t have money you find a way to make it work.”
In this manner, he was like all the coaches who met the Osaka sisters over the next decade. A bargain was struck between Adams and Francois. The father would do fundamental tasks like pitching tennis balls to students taking group lessons in exchange for Adams’ work with his daughters.
They worked, too. Three hours in the morning. Another hour or two in the afternoon. Six days a week. Adams even gave them a key to their preferred court they were such constants.
Mari, older and stronger, was the better player, then and for years to come. Naomi?
“I wasn’t even sure she liked tennis at times,’’ Adams said. “Her becoming No. 1 in the world was the farthest thing from my mind.”
One moment changed that thought. In a two-person relay drill, he saw Osaka sprint hard for the first time. Adams has coached for 46 years, and besides the Williams sisters, he worked with Mary Pierce and other top pros.
“I’ve never seen a player move like that,’’ he remembered in his small office at the Lakeshore courts. “Everyone was thinking Mari was going to be the better player at that time. I said, ‘Max, this is this is the one [Naomi] that can be a really good player.’ “
For their first year in South Florida, Adams worked with them. And then, as is part of most tennis stories, change came. The family moved on one day. Adams was fine with it, and still stays in touch with Francois.
“He came to my house two weeks ago,’’ said Adams, 69. They discussed a school Francois is developing in Haiti. “I’m happy for their success.”
On to Cooper City
The next stop in the tennis education was another public court, Brian Piccolo Park in Cooper City. Eli Serrano, who teaches there, points to the court the Osaka sisters made their office for more than a year, the furthest one from everything.
“Court No. 12,’’ he says. “They’d walk through here, very polite, say good morning, and go to work.”
Unfailing manners were a family trait, all the coaches agree. The daughters were humble, respectful and hard-working. The father was equally respectful, they say, never raising his voice to anyone or pushing his girls hard in a sport where the term “Tennis Dad” brings awful connotations.
“He always was quiet, encouraging,’’ Serrano said.
Sometimes Serrano would offer a nugget of help. Mostly, it was just the father and daughters on the court, day after day. The only footprint left of the family at Piccolo Park today is a photo tacked to the office bulletin board of Naomi winning a junior tournament a few years after the family had stopped training there.
“We were so happy when she won that,’’ Serrano said.
Jean was her coach by that point. He was coaching a Haitian student in Plantation in 2011 when Francois heard him speaking Creole. It turns out Francois and Jean grew up near each other in southern Haiti, Francois in the town of Jacmel, Jean in Bainet.
“Max talked to me and said, ‘I don’t know how to coach them. I need someone to help me,’ ” Jean said. “He asked me to help. I really didn’t want to do it.”
For two months, Jean declined before agreeing to work with the Osaka sisters. Naomi was 13 and, as the coach saw it, not ready to be a great player.
“She was fat,’’ he said. He pointed to a corner of a court at the Pompano Beach Tennis Center. “She’d sit right there, tired. The dad told me she ate a lot. I run a tough program. I had them do a lot of running, a lot of exercise.”
Following the Williams’ blueprint, Naomi skipped junior events and tried to qualify into events on the developmental ITF Women’s Circuit. She missed her first seven attempts. Her best result came at the ITF event in Amelia Island in 2012. She lost to her sister in the semifinals.
Money remained a constant issue. Francois had agreed to pay a deeply discounted fee of $300 a month, Jean said.
“After one month, he said he couldn’t do that,’’ said Jean, 46. “He said, ‘Christophe, my wife is the only one working. I can’t go to her and ask her to pay $300, I’m sorry.’
“He’d pick up the balls on the courts for me. That’s what he’d do to help. He’d pick up the balls.”
Francois’ financial issues were real, every coach said. Jean remembers a rare day when his wife showed up to a practice. She was angry. The girls, she said, had played in a tournament that cost several hundred dollars.
“She said, ‘Christophe, did you tell them to go to the tournament?’ ” Jean said. “Max told her I said to do it. I didn’t know anything about a tournament. She said, ‘I don’t have money. I have bills.’
“They had a big fight. I said right then, ‘OK, I’m going to do it for him.’ I saw how much he was putting into this. She wasn’t sure this idea would work. I’d say, ‘They’re good. You’ll see.’ ”
They played on public courts where the operators waived any fee. Plantation Woods Park. Wilton Manors Recreational Center. The Pompano Beach center where Jean still teaches.
In March 2012, Jean and Francois signed a one-page contract. It’s now Exhibit A in the lawsuit Jean filed against Francois and the sisters.
“Both parties agree on a fixed fee of twenty percent or monetary agreement on behalf of Marie (sic) Osaka and Naomi Osaka,’’ a central clause reads.
Contracts aren’t uncommon between coaches and hopeful parents, other veteran coaches like Solomon and Adams say. Jean’s Broward lawyer, Christopher Hahn, says the contract is legal and binding.
Osaka’s New York lawyer, Alex Spiro, wrote a statement: “While it comes as no surprise that Naomi's meteoric rise as an international icon and inspiration would lead to some false claim, this silly, imaginary contract that Naomi never saw or signed — which purports to give away part of herself at the age of 14 — is particularly absurd.”
Francois signed the contract. The names of the sisters are written in block type.
For two years, Jean coached the sisters, “five to six hours a day, six days a week,’’ he said. One day, they didn’t show up. Jean called Francois, who said they couldn’t make it. The next day, they didn’t show up again. That was it. Why did they leave?
“You know why,’’ Jean says.
“Money,’’ he says.
His regret regards Mari Osaka.
“Mari was like a daughter to me,’’ he said. “I told Max, ‘Naomi will be fine. Anyone can coach her. But watch Mari. She needs the right coach.’ ”
Mari is ranked 336th in the world. She’ll make her 2019 debut at The Miami Open.
“I know she could make it,’’ Jean says. “I told Max one of the last times we talked to send her back to my courts, and I’ll help her.”
In the spring of 2013, Patrick Tauma’s father was talking in French at the Indian Spring Country Club in Boynton Beach when Francois overhead. They began talking. That led to Tauma, who was starting a tennis academy, coaching the Osaka sisters.
Tauma, 47, a native Frenchman, worked on the Boca Raton High courts that summer with the 15-year-old Naomi and other hopeful youth players. The master plan, still following Williams’ blueprint, was to skip the grueling junior circuit and concentrate on the pros.
“I told her father, ‘I believe your daughter can be a great player, even No. 1 in the world,’ ” Tauma said. “But it was expensive. It’s like in Formula One, if you want to be a Ferrari you have to spend for that.”
Their financial arrangement was similar the others. Tauma said he paid for courts, hitting partners, videotape, a masseuse and charged no coaching fee — “at least $5,000 a month,’’ he said. “It’d cost $35,000 a year for each of them normally.”
He, too, saw Francois had no money. Once, as a reward for their hard training, he agreed to cook a meal of French crepes and Haitian accra fritters at their apartment.
“They didn’t even have a dining table,’’ he said.
The cost was straining the coach, though.
“I was training and investing a lot of money, thousands of dollars, providing everything, and [Francois] promised me they would sign a contract after four to six months,’’ Tauma said. “And then after that time, it was, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll sign. Don’t worry.’ ”
Tauma said he had told Francois it was time to leave when a couple of endorsement deals were proposed. Wilson rackets, he said, offered up to $80,000 a year. Top 5 agency offered $60,000 to represent Naomi, Tauma said, showing the text. Francois refused, saying he wanted another $60,000 for Mari, too.
“I finally had to say it, ‘I can’t do this,’ ’’ Tauma said. “It was costing me too much. I’m not rich. I know Naomi didn’t know anything that was going on. They came even though I said we were done, but I had to move on. Naomi asked me, ‘We’re not practicing?’ I said, ‘Your father will explain it to you.”
He has talked to Francois about some compensation. At one point in their talks, Tauma suggested getting everyone who helped along the way together for something as simple as a barbecue. Just to say thanks, he thought.
“[Naomi] is a symbol for kids who don’t have much money, a simple girl, but they were able to make it,’’ he said. “Nobody bet on her. She was nothing as a junior. The father was great guy, even if he didn’t want to sign the contract. But they’ve done it. I’m happy for them.”
Francois observed Solomon’s place, the Florida Tennis SBT Tennis Academy in Fort Lauderdale, before approaching Ean Meyer, one of the coaches. Meyer was immediately struck by Naomi’s talent.
“I said to Harold, ‘This is possibly the best 16-year-old girl I’ve ever seen; we’d be crazy not to offer her a scholarship,’ ” Meyer said.
Solomon, who was out of town that day, agreed upon returning. Both sisters were put on scholarship. The family moved into an apartment overlooking the courts.
“I thought she had the potential to be a top-10 player,’’ Solomon said.
Solomon’s voice carried the weight of experience. He won 22 titles as a professional player. He also coached the likes of top players Jennifer Capriati, Monica Seles, Mary Joe Fernandez and Jim Courier.
“There was a lot of work that needed to get done, a lot of development,’’ he said of Naomi. “But the team around her had done a great job in getting her to this point.”
One early test was a tweak the forehand technique. To do so, Osaka was told to stand in front of a mirror for a half hour and repeat the new stroke before the 8 a.m. practice. She did so, too. Every morning, the coaches saw her working on it.
Success started coming, too. Osaka qualified for her first WTA main draw at the 2014 Stanford Classic. Ranked 406th, she upset 19th-ranked Samantha Stosur. A coach at Solomon’s academy, Tom Downs, told her it had to be her biggest win.
“No, my biggest win was beating my sister for the first time,’’ she said.
Osaka was being recruited to play for Japan at this point. Solomon tried to convince Francois she should play for the United States, but the Japanese tennis federation was offering money and tournament wild-card spots.
Solomon, though, felt after six months Osaka wasn’t consistently practicing to the necessary level to become a great player. She wouldn’t push herself. He kept questioning her effort.
“One day on the court, I was hitting with [Naomi] and her sister, and I was imploring her to move her feet,’’ Solomon said. “I said, ‘Look, Naomi, there’s no chance you’ll be top 10 in the world if you keep practicing like this. It’s not going to happen.’ ”
The effort didn’t improve.
“I said, ‘Just go home and come back the next day,’ ” Solomon said.
She didn’t come back the next day. That was it. Francois found his daughters a new spot at Pro World in Delray Beach. Solomon doesn’t mind how it turned out. He says he played a “small part,” in whatever success Osaka has found and gives, “huge credit to her and her dad, who’s there all the time.”
At ProWorld, coach Antonio Torri knew the developing talent before him. Mari, 19, was good. Naomi, 17, was great.
“The power was more than any girl that age,’’ he said of Naomi. “She attacked the ball, and the serve was a weapon. It was just a matter of controlling her mind, knowing when to go for it, when not to go for it.”
He put her on an extensive fitness program, worked on game management, and Osaka cracked the top-100 rankings for the first time early in 2016. Their financial arrangement was verbal, with ProWorld picking up most but not all of the costs.
“It worked out fine,’’ Torri said.
The surprise came when Osaka advanced to the the third round of the Australian Open in 2016. Francois said they were leaving ProWorld for the sports giant IMG.
“That was that,’’ Torri said.
The Osakas began working out of the Chris Evert Academy in Boca Raton. The last year has been a breakthrough for Naomi. She won her first tournament in 2018 at Indian Wells, Calif. She beat her idol, Serena Williams in the U.S. Open. She won her second major at the Australian Open in January.
She broke the career $10 million mark in earnings. With endorsement deals from Yonex to Adidas, she may make $15 million a year in endorsements, Forbes magazine says.
As if to underline the half-life of a tennis coach, Osaka also changed coaches after winning the Australian Open. Out was Sascha Bajin. In is Jermaine Jenkins, who previously was a former hitting partner of Venus Williams. So, in some form, the Williams blueprint is still followed.
And multiple coaching changes are common in tennis. Fort Lauderdale’s Sloane Stephens, who won the U.S. Open in 2016, has worked with seven coaches since 2009.
For Osaka, though, all of this is a long way from getting a key to a preferred court from Bill Adams, a long way from worrying over tournament entry fees with Christophe Jean, a long, long way from not having a dining table, as Patrick Tauma saw.
But some of those there at the start wanted everyone to be happy. A court could decide Jean’s lawsuit. Tauma recalls a heart-to-heart talk he had while coaching Osaka.
“Where do you want to be in five years?” he said.
“Playing Serena in the U.S. Open finals,’’ she said.
“I hope you invite me in the box for that,’’ he said.
“You’ll be there,’’ she said.
He shakes his head, “I wasn’t there when it happened,” he says. He then stands up from a court-side bench in Boynton Beach and goes to give a lesson.