Young Asians to watch: Star power

NAOMI OSAKA, 23 Tennis player, Japan
NAOMI OSAKA, 23, Tennis player, JapanPHOTO: REUTERS

Naomi Osaka, 23

Tennis player, Japan

This is probably one face that needs no introduction.

As one of the world's best tennis players, Naomi Osaka used her star power to rally support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement at the US Open this year.

She sported seven different masks at her matches, each emblazoned with the name of a black victim of police brutality and racial injustice.

Osaka, who is of Japanese and Haitian descent, went on to win the tournament and become a three-time Grand Slam champion.

When asked what point she was making with the masks, she said: "Well, what was the message that you got was more the question. I feel, like, the point is to make people start talking."

Time magazine has named her among the 100 most influential people this year.


P.V. Sindhu, 25

Badminton player, India

P.V. Sindhu became the first Indian woman to win a silver medal at the 2016 Olympics and a gold at the Badminton World Federation (BWF) championships last year.


PHOTO: COURTESY OF BEJJANKI HARISH

Born to former national volleyball players, Sindhu started playing badminton when she was eight years old.

The shuttler was 17 when she smashed her way up the BWF rankings and captured the world's attention. She is currently ranked among the 10 best women's singles players in the world.

Last year, she was the only Indian on the Forbes list of highest-paid female athletes in the world, coming in at 13th place with total earnings of US$5.5 million (S$7.3 million).

When the Indian government imposed a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19 in March, Sindhu was one of several athletes who raised funds for affected daily wage workers.


Nor Diana, 20

Wrestler, Malaysia


PHOTO: NOR DIANA/FACEBOOK

Standing at 1.55m tall, Nor Diana may be petite but she sure packs a punch.

She became the first woman to win the Malaysia Pro Wrestling Wrestlecon Championship in July last year, after beating four male wrestlers.

Diana, who started taking wrestling lessons when she was 15, goes by the ring name Phoenix. She has been criticised for her tight costumes and close physical contact with her male counterparts. But as Malaysia's first hijab-wearing professional wrestler, Diana is not apologetic about it.

She once said in an interview with The Star: "After (news of me went) viral, many people were surprised at a hijab-wearing Muslim doing wrestling, but I do not want them to overlook my talents.

"I want people to see my passion and love for wrestling. At the same time, I want them to acknowledge what hijabi girls can do."


Wang Jianjiahe, 18

Swimmer, China


PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Born in China's Liaoning province, Wang Jianjiahe picked up swimming at age five in 2007 and joined the provincial swimming team five years later. In 2016, she was selected to join the elite national team.

In 2017, the rookie won the 800m freestyle final at the Fina Swimming World Cup in Doha, smashing the junior world record with a time of 8min 15.35sec. At the Asian Games in Jakarta the following year, Wang bagged four golds – for 400m, 800m, 1,500m and relay – in one of her first major
championships.

In September this year, the swimmer – who is 1.82m tall – set a new Asian record of 15min 45.59sec for the 1,500m freestyle at the Chinese National Swimming Championships in Qingdao.

Last year, she was one of the two youngest honourees on Forbes' 30 under 30 China list, which presented the country's most accomplished young people.


Ko Jin-Young, 25

Golfer, South Korea


PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Currently the No.1 female golfer, Ko Jin-young is a six-time Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour winner.

The world champion started her career as a pro golfer when she was 18 in 2013 and has since won the LPGA of Korea Tour 10 times.

Her other major championship wins include the Dinah Shore (ANA Inspiration) tournament, the Evian in France, the Founders Cup and the Women's Canadian Open, all coming last year.

She was the LPGA Rookie of the Year in 2018 and the Rolex Player of the Year in 2019.

After taking a break from the LPGA tour for almost a year because of the global pandemic, Ko returned to action in the Pelican Women's Championship last month.


Son Heung-Min, 28

Footballer, South Korea


PHOTO: EPA-EFE

He is one of the hottest properties in football and currently the most expensive player in Asia.

Son Heung-min, who is both captain of South Korea's national football team and a Tottenham Hotspur star player, was named the English Premier League's (EPL) top player for October.

The highly rated footballer dropped out of the FC Seoul U-18 team when he was 16 and flew to Germany to join Hamburger SV's youth academy, where he spent six years before playing for Bayer Leverkusen. In 2015, he moved to Tottenham in London.

Last year, Son, who is fluent in both German and English, was named Best Footballer in Asia for the fourth time and Premier League Player of the Year at the London Football Awards.

He wrapped up last year by winning the AFC Asian International Player of the Year award for the third time.


Juju Noda, 14

Racing driver, Japan



The daughter of former Formula One driver Hideki Noda, Juju took up kart racing at the age of three and won her first race in the beginner class the following year.

In 2016, when she was 10, she erased the Okayama F4 lap record of 1min 33.769sec in a test session, clocking a time of 1min 32.8sec.

Juju continues to burn the rubber in Europe, where she took part as a rookie in the F4 Danish Championship for junior drivers this year and won.

It looks like the teenager has put herself on the right track to achieve her childhood dream of winning the Grand Prix.

In an interview with Forbes in 2017, her father said she "has the ability to feel the limits of her race car" and that is a talent that cannot be taught. "She was born with it," he added.


Pratima Sherpa, 21

Golfer, Nepal



Pratima Sherpa aspires to become her country's first female professional golfer, a dream that may be within her reach.

Born poor, she was raised in a storage shed on a golf course. She grew up watching wealthy people playing their rounds at the golf club where her parents worked, and started playing the sport herself when she was 11.

Her very first club was fashioned from a tree branch by her father.

She was quick to pick up the sport and soon went on to win her first tournament. Gradually, she was filling her tiny shed with shiny trophies.

The first-ranked amateur golfer is on a full scholarship at Santa Barbara City College in California, where she continues to practise golf.

She finished fourth at the California Community College State Championships last year and was named Athlete of the Year by her college this year.


Lalu Muhammad Zohri, 20

Sprinter, Indonesia



Nicknamed "the fastest man in South-east Asia", Lalu Muhammad Zohri is the first Indonesian to win a medal – and a gold one at that – at the IAAF World U20 Championships, doing so at the Finland edition in 2018.

In the same year, he also won gold in the 100m segment at the Asian Junior Athletics Championships in Japan, making him a national hero.

But the media frenzy over him was not just about his speed, but his sad childhood as well. He lost his parents while he was in elementary school. Home to him and his three siblings was a small house made of wood and woven bamboo, with newspapers covering holes in the walls. He could not even
afford running shoes and had to train barefoot.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who ordered the Lombok native's house to be renovated, called him a "collective inspiration to the nation's athletes to achieve gold".


Margielyn Didal, 21

Professional street skateboarder, Philippines



When Margielyn Didal began skateboarding at the age of 12, the streets and malls were her playground. Her agility and skills were honed then, thanks in part to the police officers and security guards who would be hot on her heels.

Growing up in a poor family, she realised that the sport could help her support her family when she began winning cash prizes in competitions. Today, the petite skateboarder is big in the sports scene.

She won a gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games in the women's street skateboarding event. Last year, she scored two golds at the SEA Games, including one in the women's street competition.

Now ranked world No. 14, the girl from Cebu is training to represent the Philippines at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, which has been postponed to next year owing to the coronavirus pandemic.


ST VIEW INTERACTIVE

Find out more about these outstanding young Asians: str.sg/30-young-asians

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2020, with the headline 'Young Asians to watch: Star power'. Subscribe