Naomi Osaka Says Tennis Changed Her Life — So She's Extending Same Opportunities to Young Girls

Naomi Osaka's Play Academy is launching a new website to further its efforts to include girls from marginalized communities in sport

Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka. Photo: Courtesy Play Academy

Naomi Osaka started playing tennis at age three, but the journey from beginner to four-time Grand Slam winner wasn't easy.

Now, Osaka, 24, is continuing her efforts with Play Academy, a program that aims to help other young girls find empowerment through sport, and launching a new website for the venture.

"Play Academy with Naomi Osaka (PANO) is a program I created through a partnership between Nike and Laureus Sport for Good with the goal of changing girls' lives through play and sport — something that tennis did for me growing up," she tells PEOPLE in a recent interview.

"The program provides grants and capacity building training and speaks to encouraging positive and inclusive play, especially for girls in sport. When it started, we were in Japan and Haiti, and I am so excited to bring PANO here to Los Angeles."

Play Academy has gone worldwide in its mission to inspire the next generation. Says Osaka, "We now have grantee partners in L.A., Haiti and Tokyo, but at our event this week, I got to meet four grantees from Los Angeles, and it was really cool to see how Play Academy has helped them. Plus we had a lot of fun together."

The next step for Osaka's Play Academy is launching the website, powered by GoDaddy, with one goal in mind: raising awareness. Osaka tells PEOPLE, "For me, building Play Academy was not just about impacting others and encouraging young girls in sports; it is about raising awareness, and so creating a website shines a light on the work we do."

Inspired by entrepreneurs she admires, Osaka elected to work with GoDaddy for the project: "Partnering with GoDaddy was essential in sharing my vision with the world. I think it's important for nonprofits to share all their hard work and impact," she tells PEOPLE.

"I saw what GoDaddy did with other entrepreneurs and how they were able to turn their ideas into realities online, and I liked that — it's important for me to partner with brands that are inclusive and align with my values," she explains. "I hope the website becomes an important resource for people."

Osaka is passionate about creating a more obvious route for girls into tennis. "By creating a pathway into sport for young girls, I hope to help them build confidence on and off the court," Osaka explains. "That pathway wasn't always there for me and my sister growing up."

"Until the Williams sisters [Serena Williams and Venus Williams] came along, there weren't many girls in tennis we could relate to, so it is important knowing that girls can see themselves in me," says Osaka. "When I get to work with the young girls and meet some of the girls in the Play Academy, it all comes full circle."

Osaka, too, is a trailblazer for women in sports and now wants to use that success and Play Academy to focus on extending opportunities specifically to girls from marginalized communities.

"Tennis has changed my life and opened so many doors for me. I wanted to make sure that I was extending the same opportunity to girls in marginalized communities who otherwise may not have been able to get involved in and have positive experiences through sport," she tells PEOPLE. "The grantees that I am able to work with remind me so much of the programs I wish I had growing up."

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Participating in these types of sports programs offers young girls important qualities that go beyond physical athleticism. Osaka tells PEOPLE, "Sport has taught me discipline and strong work ethic. Those are qualities that transcend sport and serve me in all aspects of life, not just tennis."

Echoes Olympic sprint champion and Laureus Academy Member Michael Johnson, "Girls face different barriers than boys when it comes to accessing sport and play, and they miss out on so much that it can bring in their lives. As Laureus, we devote a huge amount of time to trying to remove those barriers and level the playing field. Naomi understands those barriers in this world, and she also understands about the power of sport in one's life. It's amazing to see her give back to girls in communities close to her heart and we are very happy to be working with her."

This new project comes on the heels of Osaka's successful run at the Miami Open. With the rest of the tennis season underway, Osaka tells PEOPLE, "I'm feeling really good. I've been training hard, and I'm looking forward to competing for the remainder of the season."

Launching Play Academy isn't the only thing on the horizon for the tennis star — Osaka has big plans for the upcoming summer.

"I am excited for the tournaments coming up and for summer in general. I am also excited with summer that I get to share the message of my other passion — the brand I founded KINLÒ, which offers sun protective products for people with melanated skin. Again KINLÒ, like PANO and my other affiliations, speak to inclusion."

Updated by
Natasha Dye

Natasha Dye is a writer-reporter for PEOPLE Digital covering sports.

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