While much of the focus is on Serena Williams, one of the brightest prospects in women's tennis will also take her first bow in Auckland today.

Naomi Osaka, who was voted WTA Newcomer of the Year in 2016, takes the court against German Annika Beck this afternoon in the ASB Classic.

Osaka turned heads last year, when she rocketed from outside the top 200 to 40 in the world, reaching the final in Tokyo and making quarter-final appearances in Acapulco, Florianopolis and Tianjin.

"I'd never played a whole year on the tour," Osaka told the Herald. "Everything was new and I didn't feel any pressure or anything. I was able to have fun and play how I wanted to."


Osaka has one of the most unlikely backgrounds on tour. She was born in Japan, raised in the United States and has been strongly influenced by Haitian culture, as her father is from the small Caribbean Island.

"I guess it's an interesting mix," said Osaka. "I grew up with a mix of Japanese and Haitian culture, but we were living in New York. Every day was interesting. My grandma and father would speak Creole, my mum would cook Japanese food."

Osaka chose to play under the Japanese flag - her father Leonard spent 12 years living in Japan, where he met Osaka's mother Tamaki - and she has become a hit in Asian nation.

"People always recognise me and come up to me and say Gambate [Do your best] and everything," said Osaka. "It's very nice."

Osaka stands out, mainly because she doesn't look Japanese. She is 1.80m and has a power game, based on a big serve and thunderous groundstrokes. Osaka first came on the radar in 2014, at the Stanford tournament.

Then ranked world No406, she emerged through qualifying for the main draw then beat former Grand Slam champion Sam Stosur.

"I was 16 years old and didn't expect to win that match," said Osaka. "It was unexpected for everyone. But then after that I felt maybe I can play with these players."

Osaka's form in 2016 attracted attention - especially her run in Tokyo where she was only stopped by Caroline Wozniacki - and she gained an endorsement from Serena Williams.


"She's really young and really aggressive," Williams said last year. "She's a really good, talented player. Very dangerous."

That kind of praise is highly motivating for the 19-year-old, who has modelled her game on Williams.

"I'm really happy to hear that but that makes me want to play her," said Osaka. "I want to do better, be seeded more often and get a chance to play her."