Already a star, Osaka wants more

Osaka has been thinking about where she needs to improve to get better results.   | Photo Credit: PATRICK HAMILTON

At 23, Naomi Osaka already is a star. She has the four Grand Slam titles, the record-breaking endorsement deals and the willingness to speak her mind to prove it.

Now the question is: Where does she go from here? It was telling that the second question posed to Osaka at the news conference following her 6-4, 6-3 victory over Jennifer Brady in the Australian Open final on Saturday was about turning in better performances at Wimbledon and the French Open.

After all, each of her Major championships so far came on hard courts at Melbourne Park (2019, 2021) or the U.S. Open (2018, 2020). She never has been past the third round at the All England Club or Roland Garros.

Even more revealing was Osaka’s response.

Asked whether her first non-hard-court Slam trophy will come on clay or grass, she said: “Hopefully clay, because it’s the one that’s sooner.”

She is not about biding her time or patient improvement. And she’s been thinking about where she needs to improve.


“It was one of her goals this year to play well outside of the hard courts. She’s still very young. It’s time to grow on those surfaces. She also believes she can do well and, I’m sure, with the right preparation, with a few, maybe, tactical (and) technical adjustments, we’re going to do well,” said her coach, Wim Fissette. “She’s the person that wants to grow.”

Part of what makes Osaka special is embracing challenges and knowing what she stands for.

That’s been the case off the court and on.

With a racquet in her hand, it’s about, as Fissette put it, being able to “love big matches and big moments”.

For example, Osaka wanted to face 23-time Major champion Serena Williams in the semifinals.

No fear there.

“She was like when I bring my kids to the toy store: They are very excited. And Naomi was excited to go on court with Serena. It’s just beautiful to see,” Fissette said. “At the end, this is what you train for, right? To be on the biggest stage with the best player of all time, Serena.”

Away from the game, Osaka says, it took time to find her voice and express her views.

She was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, and she moved to the United States when she was three. Last August, she was the first tennis pro to join athletes from other sports in walking out to protest the police shooting of a Black man in Wisconsin.

“Before I am an athlete,” Osaka tweeted at the time, “I am a black woman.”

On her way to the U.S. Open title in September, Osaka wore masks bearing the names of seven Black victims of violence to draw attention to racism and police brutality.

On Saturday, Osaka was asked whether there was a message she wanted associated with her latest triumph, which made her four for four in Slam finals.


“Honestly, for me, when everything happened in New York, I got really scared, because I felt like it put me into this light that was a non-athletic light that I’ve never been in before,” she said.

“So I feel like there is a lot of topics that people suddenly started asking me about that I completely didn’t know about at all. For me, I only like to talk when I’m knowledgeable about the subject or at least know, like, one tiny grain of what I’m about to start talking about.”

And yet, in the aftermath of winning the trophy, she was ready to think about a larger role, too.

Passing of the mantle

Many looked at her win over Serena as a passing of the mantle. Osaka also won their meeting in the 2018 U.S. Open final — who could forget that one? — and has eclipsed the 39-year-old American as the highest-earning female athlete.

But to Osaka, Serena is still, and always will be, an idol and an inspiration, a player whose example she wanted to follow.

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 12:07:57 AM |

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