MELBOURNE– It was one year ago where Naomi Osaka competed in the Australian Open for the third time in her career. Only those who followed tennis knew that she was a young, up and coming star, who was yet to make her breakthrough. She was ranked 72nd in the world. It seemed so far from her mind when she stood in Rod Laver Arena, delivering her championship remarks in front of the raucous crowd.
One year later, she was not just a two-time Grand Slam champion but the No. 1 ranked player in the world. Osaka would become the first Asian-born tennis player, either male or female, to complete such a feat. But most importantly, with her 7-6, 5-7, 6-4 victory over Petra Kvitova to win the Australian Open, she consolidated her status as a mentally strong Grand Slam champion for years to come.
“I’m aware of all the work that I put in. I know all the sacrifices that every player does to stay at this level,” said Osaka post match. “For me, I feel like it hasn’t really sunk in. Maybe in the next tournament I play, if I see the No. 1 next to my name, I’ll feel
something. But for now, I’m more happy that I won this trophy.”
Osaka Proves that US Open Was No Fluke
It hasn’t been one year since Naomi Osaka’s breakthrough WTA victory. At Indian Wells, she defeated two top 10 players en route to her first WTA Premier Mandatory event, convincingly defeating Karolina Pliskova and No. 1 ranked at the time Simona Halep. It propelled her the week later in Miami to her biggest win of her career up to that point; defeating her childhood idol Serena Williams. Women’s tennis was on high alert that Naomi Osaka was coming and here to stay.
But after back to back Grand Slams (Roland Garros and Wimbledon) where she failed to make the second week, there were questions about her mental fortitude to get over the hurdle in a Grand Slam. It wouldn’t be a long wait for Osaka, who went on to win her first Grand Slam in New York at the US Open. Despite having to endure the controversy and drama of the final, from Serena’s tense exchange with chair umpire Carlos Ramos to the boos from the crowd, it was clear that this wouldn’t be her only Grand Slam. That her fight and motivation would transcend to accomplish historical achievements in the sport.
“She really wants it,” says Sascha Baijin, Naomi Osaka’s coach. “You know, people say they want it, but she really wants it. We had an unbelievable great season last year, but after having just two weeks’ break, she came back and showed up and really worked her butt off.”
It’s what makes Saturday’s Australian Open win even more special. Many young women have gone onto win Grand Slams but what separates the multiple Grand Slam winners is their ability to sustain the motivation and belief that you can win more for years to come. The greats of the game, Serena Williams, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, all possessed the killer instinct and the hunger for more accolades. Add Naomi Osaka to the list.
“I just focus on tennis,” says Osaka. “Like, for me, when I play my match, everything else is completely not in my mind anymore. For me, Grand Slams is something you dream about playing as a kid. I don’t ever want to waste this opportunity. So those are the biggest motivating factors for me.”
Osaka Showcases Mental Toughness during Australian Open Run
Every young tennis player faces obstacles. For Osaka, that obstacle came in Brisbane, where got defeated in a dominating manner by Lesia Tsurenko 6-2, 6-4. In the post match press conference, Osaka’s maturity shined through, expressing candidness about the lack of effort she put out on the court. It was a wake up call.
“I had the worst attitude,” the 21-year old stated. “I feel like I didn’t really know how to cope with not playing well.”
Adds Sascha Baijn, “I always think you learn more from your losses than from your wins. Naomi is definitely one of those persons, as well. She said it herself.”
In Melbourne, Osaka was put to the test multiple times and prevailed. Against Hsieh Su-Wei, she was down a set and a break, before storming back to win the last two sets 6-4, 6-1. The same reality occurred in the Round of 16 against Anastasija Sevastova, where she battled the adversity from a set down to advance in three sets. Getting to the final to face Petra Kvitova would not have occurred without Osaka’s mental fortitude and toughness, squeaking out a three set thriller against Karolina Pliskova.
Brisbane could have happened all over again in the final against Petra Kvitova. After being up a set, Osaka was up 5-3 in the second set and had three championship points at 0-40. But Kvitova showcased her brilliant shotmaking and toughness of her own, roaring back to not only hold serve, but win four straight games to win the second set 7-5. Tears were flowing from Osaka’s face when she left the court for a bathroom break in between sets. But in the third set, similarly to the circus at the US Open final, Osaka blocked out the noise. She focused on the task at hand, preventing the big stage from getting in her head. The art of a true Grand Slam champion.
“In the third set of my match today, I literally just tried to turn off all my feelings,” said Osaka. “It was important for me to play with no regrets. I mean, I just thought to
myself that this is my second time playing a final. I can’t really act entitled. To be playing against one of the best players in the world, to lose a set, suddenly think that I’m so much better than her that that isn’t a possibility.”
Osaka Is Here to Stay
As Osaka hoisted the Australian Open trophy, it is evident that a shift is occurring in women’s tennis. While the strategic players like Simona Halep or Angelique Kerber will still have success with the way they mix up their shots, they are all going to have to match their game to the power of Osaka. Every time Osaka steps out on the court, she brings a big serve and powerful ground strokes. Truly modeled after her childhood idol Serena Williams.
“From the very beginning, she was a big hitter,” said Coach Sascha. “I didn’t have to teach
her how to hit the ball or anything. Maybe it was a little bit more like telling her there are other things out there than just hitting very hard. We worked on her angles. We worked on just a little bit more of everything.”
Not only is she a big hitter but Osaka can rally too. Against Kvitova, Osaka won most of the points that were long rallies. She won 76 percent of her first serve points and generated 33 winners, getting Kvitova off balance in the third and deciding set. It was this style of play that Serena Williams used to dominate her opponents. Now Osaka is about to do the same.
But through all the adversity, Naomi Osaka still exudes a great deal of humbleness. Given her upbringing and background, it is clear that she cherishes every opportunity to play on the big stage in Grand Slams. At the US Open, she was met with unnecessary boos from the crowd. In Melbourne, the cheers could be heard all across Melbourne park.
“I think as a whole, this tournament was very eye-opening for me. I had a lot of matches that were very tough and I was behind in some of them. It showed me that I could win matches from behind, just on willpower alone,” said Osaka.
The tennis world needs more like Naomi Osaka. While she is on the tour, let’s embrace every moment and success this World No. 1 achieves.