Has any player transformed herself as thoroughly, over such a short period of time, as Naomi Osaka has over the first three months of this season?
In 2017, the 20-year-old Japanese Floridian finished with an 18-22 record, dropped from No. 40 to No. 68 in the rankings, and reached just two quarterfinals, at small events in Auckland and Hong Kong. The potential in her power-based game was obvious, but after three years on tour and no titles, she didn’t seem to be getting any closer to realizing it.
Now, six months into a new coaching partnership with Serena Williams’ old hitting partner, Sasha Bajin, Osaka has a title—not just any title, but a Premier Mandatory title, at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. She has a ranking in the Top 25 for the first time. And she has recorded, in the span of 10 days, straight-set wins over Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Karolina Pliskova and Simona Halep—that’s three current or former No. 1s, and a former No. 2. And in none of those matches did Osaka show a hint of nervousness, either at the start or down the stretch.
Match point from Osaka’s win over Kasatkina in BNP Paribas Open final:
Osaka didn’t show any in closing out the title, either. After the sixth game, her 6-3, 6-2 win over fellow 20-year-old Daria Kasatkina was one-way traffic all the way to the end, with no hiccups or tight moments. Osaka controlled the rallies, rolling forehand winners crosscourt and backhand winners down the line, without having to take any big risks. Coming in, Kasatkina had been expected to use her versatility to keep the one-dimensional Osaka off balance. Yet it was Osaka, who mixed up her service speeds and spins, and moved her ground strokes from one corner to the other, who never let Kasatkina settle into a semblance of a groove.
If there was a key moment in this match, it came with Osaka serving at 3-3 in the first set. She began by double faulting and falling behind 15-30. Rather than show any fear or negativity, though, she stepped farther up in the court, pounded a backhand down the line for a winner, and let out her loudest “Come on!” of the day. Then, faced with a break point, she coolly and precisely sliced a first serve up the T and out of Kasatkina’s reach for an ace.
In the next game, Osaka broke serve with a backhand that was slightly mistimed, yet still landed right on the line. She had the lead for the first time, and it was clear that everything—even a mistake—was working for her today. Emotional and at times pessimistic in the past, she made it all look easy in her six wins in Indian Wells.
Osaka, who understood that she had the power advantage over Kasatkina, wanted more than anything to make sure she didn’t beat herself.
“I knew she probably wasn’t going to give me any balls,” Osaka said of the usually-consistent Kasatkina, “so I had to stay very consistent and not give her any balls, too.”
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As we know, wanting to do something and actually doing it are two very different things in tennis. But Osaka showed no signs of any of the flaws—inconsistency, anxiety, self-doubt, impatience—that have plagued her. Instead of pulling the trigger early, she worked points. Instead of low-margin line drives, her shots had shape, depth, safety and spin. Instead of letting one miss turn into three, she refocused and maintained a serene, upbeat disposition.
Most important, Osaka moved better than she ever has. With Bajin, she has lost weight and prioritized her fitness, which started the virtuous circle that led to this title: Her added speed allowed her to get to the ball earlier, which gave her more options with her shots. Feeling better physically led to a more positive outlook mentally. Those are things that every tennis player and tennis observer knows, but to see it all come together for Osaka was still a little stunning. In Indian Wells, she didn’t fulfill her potential—she showed an entirely new potential.
Osaka’s one misstep, in her eyes at least, was her trophy-acceptance speech. By the time she had giggled her way through it, she said she thought it was going to go down as the worst ever. Osaka likes to say she’s “shy,” but I’m not so sure. Even her stammers during that speech sounded pretty self-assured, as if she knew she was going to be up there giving a speech like this sooner or later.
The most telling, and accurate, line of Osaka’s speech was the one she directed toward Kasatkina: “I’m pretty sure we’re going to play a lot of finals later,” she said. It’s not bragging if you can back it up. Now we know she can back it up.
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