In her run to a second Australian Open title – her fourth major championship overall – Naomi Osaka convinced me that she indeed has the intestinal fortitude to reign on the throne of women’s tennis.
About a year ago, I had begun to have my doubts. After failing to defend her 2019 Australian Open title by losing to teen sensation Coco Gauff in the third round, Osaka suffered perhaps the worst loss of her professional career, a 6-0, 6-3 drubbing in a Fed Cup match by a player ranked more than 70 points below her.
Osaka left the court in tears. For me, it was a stunning display of emotional fragility from a player who had shown such steely resolve in beating her idol, Serena Williams, to capture her first major title at the 2018 US Open and then backing that up with the 2019 Australian Open victory.
I wondered whether she was beginning to succumb to the pressure of expectations or if it was just a reflection of the disappointment she must have felt over having performed so poorly while playing for her country, Japan.
Or could it have been that the thrill was gone? I mean when you achieve your childhood dream of beating your idol at your favorite major tournament before thousands of stadium spectators and millions of TV viewers before your 21st birthday what is left to accomplish?
Then, the pandemic hit, temporarily shutting down not just the professional tennis tour but all of sports. Then, came the death of George Floyd that sparked weeks of protests, in which Osaka participated, against police killings of unarmed blacks. Those merging crises provided Osaka time and reason to reflect and reboot.
When the tennis season reopened, the 23-year-old Haitian-Japanese player who has spent most of her life living in the United States rattled off a string of victories, including winning her second US Open crown in September, before entering this year’s tournament Down Under.
Still, I had lingering doubts about whether she had that inner strength to be a true champion. She erased my apprehension at a critical juncture in her semi-final win over Serena.
Osaka had won the first set and was up 4-3, in the second when Serena broke Osaka’s serve to even the match at 4-4. Serena had been moving well throughout the tournament and looked to be in her best physical condition since giving birth in 2017. It appeared she was on the verge of another patented comeback.
In the next game, Osaka broke Serena’s serve at love. Serena, the best server in the history of women’s tennis, did not win a single point! In fact, three of the four points Osaka won were blistering winners that left Serena virtually flatfooted. Osaka then served out the match with little resistance, for a 6-3, 6-4 victory.
Osaka’s sheer dominance in those last two games announced that she was the new queen of women’s tennis.
Her easy victory in the finals over American Jennifer Brady was her 21st straight win since the WTA tour reopened late last summer.
Of the seven Women’s Tennis Association titles Osaka has won, four have been in Grand Slam tournaments. She is in rarefied company with Roger Federer and Monica Seles as the only three players in modern history to win their first four major finals.
Although the victory lifted her only to No. 2 – Aussie Ashleigh Barty remains at No. 1 – it appears only a matter of time before she is again the top player on the WTA tour.
During my period of doubt, I thought Osaka needed a goal, a new challenge after having already realized her dream match and held the No. 1 ranking, something to keep her motivated.
In an interview with WTA Insider Podcast after her victory, I found some reassurance that she has found new motivation. The host asked if she was up to the challenge of winning majors on her two least favorite surfaces, the red clay at the French Open and grass at Wimbledon.
“I think there’s a feeling of doing something for the first time and wanting to be good at a lot of different things,” she said. “For me, it’s a real priority. And I also kind of want to complete my set of trophies. I’m missing two.”
My money is on Osaka winning at least a Wimbledon title because of the benefit of the faster surface to her power game. But her movement and athleticism should serve her well on clay. Add a little bit of patience, and that should give her a shot at winning at Roland Garros, too, completing the Grand Slam of tennis.