We may never fully understand the degree to which Naomi Osaka’s life was upended a couple years ago when this shy, matter-of-fact young woman won a couple Grand Slams and became a global superstar almost overnight.
But through most of 2019, there was reason to be concerned about how she was handling it. With new responsibilities and big expectations, Osaka started to lose early in tournaments she was suddenly supposed to win and lose to opponents she was supposed to beat.
After winning the U.S. Open and Australian Open back to back, Osaka went 20-12 over the next seven months, changed coaches twice, crashed out early in four straight Grand Slams and seemed to struggle with the weight of everything that had been put on her shoulders. It seemed, for a moment, like taking the mantle from Serena Williams as the face of women’s tennis just might not be for her.
Naomi Osaka collects her second Australian Open trophy after beating American Jennifer Brady on Saturday. (Photo: Mark Dadswell, AP)
Now we see Osaka more clearly, and it appears she sees herself the same way. Because for the past seven months, she’s leaned into who she was destined to be: a leader on social justice, a dominant personality, a fashion brand, and, of course, a tennis player rapidly climbing up the Grand Slam winners list.
The only question these days is how high she can go.
Osaka’s second career Australian Open title on Saturday gives her four Grand Slams at age 23. That puts her alongside the likes of Kim Clijsters and within sight of Maria Sharapova and Martina Hingis.
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At a time when women’s tennis is arguably deeper than it's ever been, the performance Osaka put on in Australia is suddenly making the sport look remarkably lopsided. Not only did Osaka win the tournament, she did it the hard way, overcoming a draw that put some difficult players in her path including Williams and two-time Slam champ Garbiñe Muguruza, who pushed her to the absolute limit and had two match points before Osaka found another gear.
That victory got Osaka into the quarterfinals, where she simply powered through Hsieh Su-wei, Williams and Jennifer Brady in the final, winning comfortably 6-4, 6-3 despite playing something less than her best tennis.
That’s what the best of the best can do, and Osaka now seems both determined to be part of that group of all-time greats and completely comfortable with everything that comes with it. As Osaka said following her semifinal win over Williams: “I have this mentality that people don't remember the runners up. You might, but the winner’s name is the one that’s engraved.”
That’s the mindset of a special talent who is hungry for more, and there’s plenty more for Osaka to do.
Osaka has won six of the last eight majors played on hard courts, and it’s clear that opponents struggle on that surface with both her serve and a powerful baseline game designed push them into corners and take their time away. But her ability to dominate the same way on other surfaces is less clear.
Not only has Osaka never won a tournament on something other than hard courts, she’s never even made a final. Her aptitude for clay has been strangely disappointing, having never advanced past the third round of the French Open with no deep runs at some of the other tentpole events of the European clay season. She’s also had two third-round exits and one first-round loss at Wimbledon.
If Osaka wants to be considered one of the greats, she will have to to start making an impact at those two majors. It’s way too much to expect Osaka to start chasing down Williams’ Open Era record of 23 Grand Slams, but you can’t even set your sights that high if you’re writing off the French Open and Wimbledon every year.
Osaka has the talent to do it, and if her last couple years have shown us anything, it’s the willingness to get outside her comfort zone.
Off the court, Osaka is still slightly deferential, sometimes awkward, not always completely at ease with the idea that she’s the most highly-paid female athlete in the world and one of sport’s most important voices.
But she is comfortable saying what she feels, and for someone who is going to spend the next decade-plus getting asked how she feels about everything, that’s a big deal.
With American roots and a heritage touching Haiti and Japan, Osaka has the multicultural reach to be a force in anything she wants to pursue. That was true the moment she broke through for that first U.S. Open title, but it’s taken until now for all the pieces to come together.
With her fourth Grand Slam title in tow and an air of confidence in who she’s become, it’s Naomi’s time now.
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