TOA coral sun set behind the Melbourne skyline, Naomi Osaka walked to her mark, danced softly with her toes, struck her left thigh with her left fist twice and crouched down, ready to receive Jennifer’s service. Brady. He did this over and over again: jig, tap, dip; template, touch, dip. It was a meditation that secured a second Australian Open title and a fourth Grand Slam for the dominant force in women’s tennis.
Both finalists advanced in the tie behind the dominant first serves, but an unexpectedly cold and stormy night proved disruptive. The wind was not strong, but capricious, circling the Rod Laver Arena, scaring the contestants in their moment of concentration. Neither player averaged more than 45% of their first serves during a first set plagued by waves of apologies for errant pitches.
The third-seeded had to find another way to score points, so he pulled them out of Brady, taking early returns, shooting them deep into his opponent’s feet, and using that platform to dominate the court. “I felt rushed, like I was applying pressure,” Brady said. Time and time again Osaka came back to baseline, raised her calves, hit her quads, and minded business.
When he was a 15-year-old phenom, Osaka said his favorite shots were his forehand and serve “because I feel like I can finish the point anytime I want.”
This is usually the case. It was against Serena Williams in the semi-finals, and especially at the close of the fourth round match against Garbiñe Muguruza that she was rarely on her racket. Here he did not have that luxury but he showed that not everything has to be in his favor to succeed.
“He played really well when he had to,” Brady said. “She made good shots when she needed them. And those times are the hardest time to find those shots. “
Since the beginning of 2017, when Williams claimed his 23rd title, there have been 12 winners of the 16 slams on offer. During that period, only two players have won multiple slams: Simona Halep with two and Osaka with four. She has filled a void, becoming the first player since Maria Sharapova in 2012 to reach that number. It is his fourth consecutive season with a major title. “She’s just a boss,” her boyfriend, American rapper Cordae, recently told GQ. “She is a murderer.”
This was the first of the Osaka slams to arrive after entering the final as a heavy favorite. As with all challenges in his career, it was one that he climbed with poise.
“I fight harder in the final,” he said after beating his idol in the semifinals. “That’s where you distinguish yourself.”
It’s a competitive instinct straight out of the playbook of Kobe Bryant, a mentor he’s called an older brother and uncle.
Such insatiable drive still feels at odds with Osaka’s off-court personality, which remains disarmingly lovable; The 23-year-old takes her greatness lightly. But as Jayne Hrdlicka, President of Tennis Australia, said during the presentation of the Daphne Akhurst Commemorative Cup: “In the last 12 months, you have expressed your voice.”
This was in reference to Osaka’s powerful statement on the wearing of masks at the US Open and his growing willingness to engage in a public debate on sensitive issues, including violence against Asian Americans and the resignation of Yoshiro Mori as president of the organizing committee of the Tokyo Olympics.
“You’ve made a huge difference in everything you focused on and it’s truly inspiring and an opportunity for all of us to step back and see the ways we can make a difference in the community,” added Hrdlicka.
Osaka’s first Australian Open trophy, in 2019, resides on a pedestal in the corner of her living room. One of his US Open trophies is closer, closer to television. You may soon need to follow more in Williams’ footsteps and build a whole room dedicated to silverware. This won’t be the last shiny mug engraved with Osaka’s name.
In that interview as a teenager, Osaka said, in the same low-key sotto voce he used on the podium in Melbourne: “My goal is to become a tennis legend. I will do everything in my power to get there. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism