“People don’t remember the runner-ups. The winner’s name is the one that’s engraved on the trophy.” – Naomi Osaka
“Naomi Osaka,” said Lindsay Davenport, “has figured out life faster than most people on this planet.” With an uncanny yet quiet zest, she glows on the big stage. The woman who adeptly navigated the wildest event in the history of women’s sports, the dysfunctional 2018 US Open final, tonight defied the pressure of being the overwhelming favorite in her fourth Slam final and used her unwavering power to beat American Jen Brady 6-4, 6-3 to win the Australian Open title.
Then again, no one blends disparate elements like the Japanese-Haitian-American, who has lived in Osaka, Japan, Long Island, Florida and Los Angeles. For years, she was everyone’s favorite WTA innocent – sweet and gentle, kind and transparent. She said she’d never change. But then she not only fired her coach, she openly talked about her bouts with depression. As the wealthiest woman athlete in the world, she rakes in $34 million a year. That’s 50% more than Sharapova, who seems a bit of a pauper in comparison.
Osaka loves to strike a pose and to be featured on the covers of snazzy magazines. She doesn’t shy away from endorsing luxury items only the wealthiest among us could afford. (“Dahlin’ don’t you love my $3,595 Louis Vuitton”)? Then she taps her inner Rosa Parks.
As social protests surged on American streets last summer, she told the world we’ve got to stop playing tennis for a minute and pay attention to what matters. Then, at the US Open, Naomi wore masks on court to memorialize Black victims of police brutality. She reads her history. She’s found her voice – she’s fought for social justice in Haiti and worked to end discrimination in Japan. Does anyone in sports so honor the less powerful among us? Few have been so bold. Amazingly, she’s barely stirred a whiff of backlash.
She disarms and enchants us. Her authenticity resonates, her empathy touches us. Even though she’s repeatedly pounded the grand old lady of the game, Serena speaks fondly of her.
She lets us in without filters. No one talks to herself as openly as this beloved young star. Osaka claims she’s odd. “I am weird. It’s kind of a fact,” she quipped.
What’s also a fact is that Osaka is fierce. Didn’t she basically tell the media that coming in second is for wimps? She rises at crunch time and closes matches with a calm ferocity. She brushed off two match points against Garbine Muguruza and counterattacked when Serena tried to get back into their semifinal.
The list of Osaka’s on-court attributes is as long and impressive as her groundstrokes: pace, weight of shots, movement, court position, a mighty serve, anticipation, ball awareness, footwork, returns, ability to redirect, unwavering focus, fierce explosiveness, experience, will, and a desire to improve. Did we miss anything?
Our list may be long, but Naomi’s final was brief. Not surprisingly, Brady, playing her first Slam final, was nervous. Two double faults gave Osaka an early break. Brady tried to mute Naomi’s pace. She battled back to even the opening set. Later she had a chance to earn three break points. But, in a critical moment, she failed to pounce on an Osaka second serve. Down 5-4, Brady struggled to stay in the set. Then she muffed a windblown forehand and dumped a short forehand into the net.
Osaka captured the first set, and quickly sensed there was blood in the water. She took it to the big-hitting but often errant Brady, and eventually won six games in a row. Chris Evert observed, “Naomi is starting to form an aura around her, of almost invincibility, on hard courts.”
Brady battled back. She broke serve and avoided a rout. But Osaka, who had navigated a fierce draw featuring two-time Slam winner Muguruza and the always dangerous Hsieh Sui-Wei, not to mention Serena, maintained her focus. She pounded her groundstrokes and created mean angles that gave Jen little rhythm and no time to set up her big strokes. The two Floridians had had an epic battle in September at the US Open. This was a 75-minute beat down.
Then again, Osaka has never lost after reaching a Slam quarterfinal. She’s won 33 of her last 35 Slam matches on hard courts, and now has won two of the three last Aussie Opens and two of the three majors of the COVID era.
True, she’s never gotten beyond the third round at the French Open or Wimbledon. And, who knows, she may never equal Serena’s records or achieve her singular standing. But the 23-year-old’s name has already been engraved on a fourth Slam trophy. Our only problem is that she claims she’s weird. We think she’s wonderful.