We may never fully understand the degree to which Naomi Osaka’s life was upended a couple years ago when this shy, matter-of-fact young woman won a couple Grand Slams and became a global superstar almost overnight.
But through most of 2019, there was reason to be concerned about how she was handling it. With new responsibilities and big expectations, Osaka started to lose early in tournaments she was suddenly supposed to win and lose to opponents she was supposed to beat.
After winning the U.S. Open and Australian Open back to back, Osaka went 20-12 over the next seven months, changed coaches twice, crashed out early in four straight Grand Slams and seemed to struggle with the weight of everything that had been put on her shoulders. It seemed, for a moment, like taking the mantle from Serena Williams as the face of women’s tennis just might not be for her.
Now we see Osaka more clearly, and it appears she sees herself the same way. Because for the past seven months, she’s leaned into who she was destined to be: a leader on social justice, a dominant personality, a fashion brand, and, of course, a tennis player rapidly climbing up the Grand Slam winners list.
The only question these days is how high she can go.
Osaka’s second career Australian Open title on Saturday gives her four Grand Slams at age 23. That puts her alongside the likes of Kim Clijsters and within sight of Maria Sharapova and Martina Hingis.
At a time when women’s tennis is arguably deeper than it’s ever been, the performance Osaka put on in Australia is suddenly making the sport look remarkably lopsided. Not only did Osaka win the tournament, she did it the hard way, overcoming a draw that put some difficult players in her path including Williams and two-time Slam champ Garbiñe Muguruza, who pushed her to the absolute limit and had two match points before Osaka found another gear.
That victory got Osaka into the quarterfinals, where she simply powered through Hsieh Su-wei, Williams and Jennifer Brady in the final, winning comfortably 6-4, 6-3 despite playing something less than her best tennis.
That’s what the best of the best can do, and Osaka now seems both determined to be part of that group of all-time greats and completely comfortable with everything that comes with it. As Osaka said following her semifinal win over Williams: “I have this mentality that people don’t remember the runners up. You might, but the winner’s name is the one that’s engraved.”
That’s the mindset of a special talent who is hungry for more, and there’s plenty more for Osaka to do.
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SOURCE: USA TODAY, Dan Wolken