NAOMI OSAKA – Valley Girl, Zen Master and Indian Wells Champ

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Photo by Brent Bishop

This tennis tournament began with tales of tennis elders. Maria Sharapova lost early, which sparked speculation – why has she struggled so much since she’s returned? Beaming Mama Vika Azarenka came back to the court. Serena again dazzled after a rugged pregnancy, only to face her sister Venus, who would go on to come within two points of making it to the final.

But in the end, the BNP Paribas Open’s women’s tournament was a celebration of two Next Gen twenty-year-olds who’d been thrashing their elders. Naomi Osaka and Daria Kazatkina had swept aside one Slam champ after another to become the youngest Indian Wells finalists since Serena and Kim Clijsters battled here in 2001.

Since September, Kasatkina has beaten all four reigning Grand Slam singles champions: Jelena Ostapenko, Garbiñe Muguruza, Sloane Stephens and Caroline Wozniacki – twice. Here she beat four former Slam champions in a row: Stephens, Wozniacki, Angie Kerber and Venus. As for Osaka, she beat Sharapova, Aga Radwanska, Karolina Pliskova and Simona Halep at Indian Wells this year – amazing!

The woman with the same last name as Japan’s second largest city, population 19 million, has a Haitian dad and a Japanese mom. She grew up on Long Island, but has lived and trained in Florida for years. She plays for Japan, but doesn’t speak Japanese, and has dual Japanese/American citizenship. Her coach, Sascha Bajiin, was Serena Williams’ hitting partner for years.

Naomi is the most enchanting cross between a valley girl and a zen master that tennis has ever given us. Fasten your seat belt – expect the unexpected. Her press conferences are existential mazes that draw curious crowds. She’s blunt, spontaneous, loopy, beyond inventive and has the greatest sense of humor in the women’s game since Li Na – a critical asset that insulates her from the daunting pressures of pro tennis.

But there’s nothing funny about her power game. Her forehand is a weapon. Her serve creates easy winners. Her movement, focus and confidence have improved. Yet today she was the underdog against Kazatkina. According to the Russian’s coach, Philippe Dehaes, Daria is an artist who, with her soft hands, plays “festive tennis” with a mix of topspin, finesse slices and drop shots. At the start, Daria quickly broke Osaka. But Naomi broke back to even the set, then broke again in the eighth game when Kasatkina’s forehand faltered. You don’t want to be behind Naomi – of late, she’s been lethal in closing Indian Wells matches. She won nine straight games to finish off world No. 1 Simona Halep.

Today, young Kazatkina was flat and tight – and suffered too many errors. Perhaps she was gutted mentally by her break-out run, capped off by an epic marathon win over Venus in which she’d been only two points from defeat. Today the occasion was too much for Daria. Her creativity vanished – her confidence waned.

Osaka won nine of the last eleven games to become the first Japanese player to prevail at Indian Wells and the youngest victor in a decade. With her 6-3, 6-2 win she’ll cut her ranking in half (from 44 to 22), and her $1.3 million payday will almost double her career prize money. It was Naomi’s first win as a pro, so she gave her first acceptance speech – charming and disarming, silly and filled with schoolgirl giggles. She called it “the worst acceptance speech ever.”

In the interview room, she did talk some tennis, saying she was nervous, wasn’t sure why she chose to serve first, and felt she had to hit out against Kazatkina, who she said she thought would do more with slices and spins. Naomi thought the key to her incredible surge was her improved concentration. She added that she thought the trophy was cool.

But Osaka is known for her whimsy. She confided, “I didn’t know that I won the match point. So then I was sort of, like, Caveman SpongeBob.” Then she revealed, “I’m a little bit superstitious, which is weird, because today – okay – usually in the morning I eat the same breakfast, like, every time. But then today, they brought me sourdough toast instead of wheat. I freaked out…but I still ate it. And then I was thinking, ‘if I lose this match because of the sourdough toast, I’m going to be really upset’ (smiling).” She then said that she and Daria would be sharing a private jet to Miami, but they wouldn’t talk much: “I don’t know how to start conversations. I don’t know what you’re supposed to say to someone that you’ve not really talked to before…I’m so weird. It’s so bad. Oh, my God. Okay.”

Okay, Naomi, okay.

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