With many singing her praises after her breakthrough win at Indian Wells in March, it was apparent that Naomi Osaka needed more than just that one big title to truly believe that her game was at par with the WTA’s best.
However, after her Major breakthrough victory at the US Open – where she defeated the woman widely considered the best of the best – and her follow up run to the final in Japan, it’s evident that Osaka now believes.
Standing at 5’11”, Osaka – who is half Haitian and half Japanese – is often described as an aggressive player with a strong forehand and a powerful serve.
She first caught the attention of the tennis world in 2014 when she defeated former US Open champ, Samantha Stosur, as a 16-year-old.
Of course, her first big pro title came in March when she powered her way through former world No. 1s, Maria Sharapova and Karolina Pliskova, and current world No. 1, Simona Halep, to claim the Premier Mandatory event at Indian Wells.
After a straight sets lost to Osaka in the final, Daria Kasatkina of Russia spoke about the unlimited potential of the hard-hitting champion.
“She’s playing really good. She just won mandatory tournament, so of course she got the potential. Everything else depends on her,” said Kasatkina about Osaka when asked by a reporter if she had what it took to win Grand Slams.
However, Osaka would fail to build on the momentum after big her win – losing in the second round at the Miami Open.
In the months that followed, Osaka would experience a lot of inconsistency in her game; and had stretches where she struggled both on and off the court.
In fact, leading up to the US Open, she had suffered three straight defeats.
“In Cincinnati after I lost, I lost three matches in a row. I was in the locker room and I was just crying because I thought, ‘Wow, I’m really bad at tennis,'” said the 20-year-old from Japan prior to her championship match against Serena Williams.
“Then, I came here and I was just thinking, I’m going to have fun and fight for every point that I can…….So in a way, I’m glad that I lost those three matches because I think my mentality would have been different coming into this tournament.”
There’s been a lot said about Williams and the controversy with the chair umpire, but one thing that didn’t get overlooked in all that was how well Osaka played in the final.
“She played an amazing match. She deserved credit, she deserved to win. At the end of the day, that’s what it was,” said Williams in her post match presser.
“She made a lot of shots. She was so focused. I think, you know, whenever I had a breakpoint, she came up with some great serve. Honestly, there’s a lot I can learn from her from this match,” Williams added.
Osaka admitted that she didn’t know how to react immediately after winning her maiden Grand Slam against her childhood idol.
“To have a huge reaction isn’t really me in the first place. It just still didn’t really feel that real. So for me it just felt like a normal match just walking up to the net. But it’s Serena that’s on the other side. She hugged me, and it was really awesome,” said Osaka.
And while she collected a check for $3.8 Million, perhaps the most valuable asset that Osaka picked up from her championship run at Flushing Meadows was the belief that Indian Wells was no fluke.
“I don’t think you can win a Grand Slam and not be confident in yourself,” noted the 2018 US Open champ.
Unlike the immediate let down after her title victory in March, she followed up on her US Open triumph by making it to the final of the Toray Pan Pacific Open title at home in Tokyo – where she was defeated by Karolina Pliskova.
While tennis has certainly become more physically demanding over the years, it is still said that a large part of the sport is played between the ears.
For Osaka, winning her first Major, and beating her childhood idol in the process, has obviously given her a new level of confidence and mental toughness to support and complement her physical talents – which could only lead to a higher level of consistency in her results.
And for the promising young player – who celebrates her 21st birthday on October 16th – that’s a major breakthrough.