WASHINGTON, December 15, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
Naomi Osaka showed brilliance and resolve in beating 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, 6-2, 6-4, to win the U.S. Open in September. It was Osaka’s first Grand Slam title, and she became the first Japanese player to win a major singles title. She achieved success by staying focused in the moment – unlike her older and more experienced opponent – and displayed a sense of composure and maturity well beyond her 20 years of age. The bottom line was simple: Osaka played decisive tennis and rose to the occasion in front of both a sell-out crowd inside Arthur Ashe Stadium and a world-wide television audience.
By all accounts, Osaka handled the pressure of playing in her first Grand Slam final extremely well as she placed 73 percent of her first serves in play, lost just 11 points on her first serve and hit 16 winners. She also saved five of six break points.
“I think maybe in a few days I’ll realize what I’ve done,” Osaka said back in September, after lifting her first major trophy. “I felt like I shouldn’t let myself be overcome by nerves or anything, and I should just really focus on playing tennis because that’s what’s gotten me to this point.”
Osaka, who as a third-grader once wrote a paper on Williams, her idol, emerged as one of the most refreshing interviews of the year on tour. After beating Williams in the U.S. Open final, Osaka said, “She really wanted to have the 24th Grand Slam, right? Everyone knows this. It’s on the commercials, it’s everywhere. When I step onto the court, I feel like a different person. I’m not a Serena fan. I’m just a tennis player playing another tennis player. But then when I hugged her at the net, I felt like a little kid again.”
Osaka tried to put things in perspective following her unimaginable victory in which Williams lost her cool on the court at a crucial juncture in the final. Speaking to the media, Osaka said, “The thing is, I don’t know what happened on the court. So for me, I’m always going to remember the Serena that I love. It doesn’t change anything for me. She was really nice to me, at the net and on the podium. I don’t really see what would change.”
Earlier in the year, Osaka was anything but shy as she took out Williams, the former World No. 1, 6-3, 6-2, in a featured first-round Stadium match at the Miami Open presented by Itaú in Key Biscayne, Florida. It was like the continuation of a fairy tale come true for Osaka, who in March suddenly became the hottest player in women’s tennis.
Born of a Japanese mother and Haitian father, Osaka lives and trains in Boca Raton, Florida. So, playing in the Miami Open was like a homecoming for her. She showed great mental composure and hit all the right shots during her lopsided win against Williams, just three days after winning her first WTA title at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California.
Osaka’s 2018 season was a promising turn around from 2017, when she won just 18 of 40 main draw matches and finished ranked No. 68. Now 21, Osaka has risen all the way to No. 5 in the world rankings after compiling an impressive 42-20 win-loss record and earnings of nearly $6.4 million this season.
Additionally, Osaka’s coach Sascha Bajin was named WTA Coach of the Year, and Osaka was recently commemorated with a newly minted collection of stamps in her home country of Japan. During the off-season, she also visited her father’s home country of Haiti. So, it’s been a time for celebrating a year of great success.
Looking back over her breakthrough season, Osaka handled the moment of her first Grand Slam final extremely well by looking relaxed and playing strong. In the end, she showed that sweetness and toughness can co-exist.