Buried under controversy is the remarkable story of 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, who was crowned the women’s champion at the U.S. Open this year. Apart from just the 6-2, 6-4 rout of her childhood idol Serena Williams, Osaka was praised for the calm she maintained in the midst of all the drama — code violations that ultimately led to Williams losing a game — and finishing the match clean. It was her first Grand Slam title.
Why is her win important?
Born to a Japanese mother and a Haitian-American father and living in the U.S. for almost all her life, Osaka represents Japan in tennis. Her victory marks the first time a player from her country has won a singles Grand Slam championship.
The feat even earned her a congratulatory tweet from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This was Osaka’s first Grand Slam final as well.
Before her, the only Japanese player to reach a Grand Slam final was Kei Nishikori, who lost to Marin Cilic at the U.S. Open in 2014. Most importantly, Osaka’s win is further proof that the women’s tour — with its unprecedented depth — is in transition.
What is her style of playing?
Osaka plays an aggressive, entertaining brand of tennis. Like Williams, Osaka’s game is big, and she attacks with her strong forehand. At 5.9 feet, Osaka’s biggest weapon is her serve. At the U.S. Open in 2016, she served a 125 mph serve, a feat that only eight other women have managed.
Her game is about hitting flat and with power; she takes the ball early and hits it hard, over and again. She is also perfectly capable of playing a more counter-punching style to unwind all that power. If her serve doesn’t do the trick, she indulges her opponents in long rallies and eventually tires them out. Much of her success has been attributed to a coaching partnership with Sascha Bajin, Williams’ old hitting partner.
When did she break through?
Osaka turned pro in 2013, when she was just 15, and in the five years since, has racked up several notable career highlights. In 2016, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) designated her the ‘Newcomer of the Year’ after a ‘breakthrough season,’ in which she reached the third round of the Australian Open, the French Open, and the U.S. Open. Her world ranking improved from 203 in 2015 to 40 in 2016.
In 2017, she lost her footing and finished with an 18-22 record, dropped from No. 40 to No. 68 in the rankings, and made just two quarter-final appearances. Her only notable win was at the first round of the U.S. Open when she defeated defending champion Angelique Kerber.
This year, however, saw Osaka transform thoroughly. She registered her best Slam run at the Australian Open in January, where she made the last 16. She went on to win her first premier title at Indian Wells, widely known as the ‘fifth major’ in tennis.
On her way, she defeated a formidable line-up of former number ones — Maria Sharapova, Karolina Pliskova and Simona Halep — all in straight sets.
What lies ahead?
Osaka’s world has expectedly turned around. Following her win, she broke into the Top 10 for the first time, soaring from her current ranking of No. 19 to No. 7, becoming just the fourth Japanese player ever to break into the Top 10 after Kimiko Date, Ai Sugiyama and Nishikori. Tennis stars become brands unto themselves and that could be true for Osaka as well: she was announced as Nissan’s brand ambassador following her win and unconfirmed reports suggest that a huge deal with Adidas is in the pipeline. Osaka has her eye on qualifying for the WTA Finals in Singapore for the first time in her career. At a time when tennis continues to age, she is a player who will be a welcome injection of youthful vigour.