Naomi Osaka celebrates 24th birthday with rare photo: ‘Kobe year’

Tennis star shared sweet pic of herself as a baby for birthday No. 24, referring to mentor Bryant and calling it her "Kobe year."

Tennis star Naomi Osaka shared a sweet photo of herself as a baby to mark her 24th birthday, which she called her “Kobe year,” referencing late NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, who was one of her mentors.

“I just wanna say I’m so extremely grateful, thank you everyone for all the birthday wishes,” she wrote on Instagram Saturday. “When I was younger it was just my sister and parents who wished me happy birthday, now a few years later to have people all over the world doing the same…Surreal emotions. Feeling very thankful, honored, and blessed.” 

This August photo shows tennis star Naomi Osaka celebrating her win against Marie Bouzkova after their Women’s Singles first-round match on Day One of the 2021 U.S. Open. (Photo: Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Osaka in Japan was born on Oct. 16, 1997, to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father. Her family migrated to the United States when she was 3 years old. 

The tennis star has been playing the sport since childhood, and rose to prominence in 2014, at the age of 16, when she defeated a former U.S. Open champion in her World Tennis Association debut. 

A four-time Grand Slam champion, Osaka is now one of the world’s most marketable athletes. In 2020, she was named one of the Sports Illustrated Sportspersons of the Year; she also was touted as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2019 and 2020. 

Osaka made headlines this year with her firm stance in advocating for her mental health, when she pulled out of the French Open after being fined for refusing to speak to reporters, citing anxiety when meeting with the media as the reason. She also pulled out of Wimbledon, but competed in the Tokyo Olympics, where she lost to Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic.

In this August 2019 photo, former NBA player Kobe Bryant watches a Women’s Singles second-round match between Naomi Osaka of Japan and Magda Linette of Poland on Day Four of the 2019 U.S. Open. (Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images)

In her tweet, Osaka referred to her 24th birthday as her “Kobe year,” because 24 was one of the legendary Los Angeles Laker player’s jersey numbers. The two championship athletes were close. Last year, Osaka wore a jersey emblazoned with his number after all of her matches in the U.S. Open, and went on to win the title.

As previously reported, in her three-part Netflix docuseries, Naomi Osaka: Playing By Her Own Rules, Osaka reflected on her relationship with Bryant.

“It’s so amazing how one person can, like, touch the hearts of so many people. I’ve been walking around, and there’s so many people with Bryant jerseys on,” she noted in the self-shot footage.

In the documentary, Osaka’s coach, Wim Fissette, talked about witnessing how Bryant’s passing affected the young tennis star, saying, “It’s really so tough because as a coach, you wanna go to her, speak to her, ask her, tell her things just to help her because she was like … yeah, it was very sad.”

This article features additional reporting from theGrio’s Blue Telusma. 

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