Naomi Osaka has now won both the Australian and US Opens twice by age 23, making clear her hard court supremacy.
Yet oddly, she has never made the second week of the French Open or Wimbledon, with the third round her best result at the clay and grass court Grand Slams.
Such is the expectation that Osaka will become the next all-time great of women’s tennis, the question of her claiming those titles was raised before she’d even lined up for the trophy presentation at Melbourne Park on Saturday night.
“It will be very interesting to see how she goes on the clay and the grass,” Nine commentator Sam Smith said.
“That’s top of the list. She wants to improve those performances.”
Osaka – who incredibly has not lost a match in more than a year, given the coronavirus-hit 2020 calendar – soon confirmed her desire to conquer Roland Garros and the All England Club. There is steel underneath her self-described “childish” exterior. She fully expects to add those titles to her four hard court Slams and they now have her particular focus.
“Yes, I think definitely. For me, I feel like there’s no reason why I shouldn’t do well in those tournaments,” Osaka told Nine after beating Jennifer Brady 6-4 6-3 in the Australian Open final.
“I think it’s a matter of being comfortable and hopefully as I play more matches on those surfaces, I’ll get better.”
Osaka played neither Wimbledon (event cancelled) or Roland Garros (skipped with injury) last year. Apart from the standard ‘how are you feeling after your Australian Open win’ question, the first query made of Osaka in her victory press conference on Saturday was which non-hard court major she intended to win first.
Her answer demonstrated her hidden ruthlessness.
“Hopefully clay because it’s the one that’s sooner,” Osaka said, with the French Open scheduled to begin in mid-May.
“For me, I feel like I have to get comfortable on those surfaces. That’s the key thing that, you know, I didn’t play juniors, so I didn’t grow up playing on grass at all.
“So I honestly think I’d have better luck on clay, because I think last year I didn’t play bad at all. It’s just something that I have to get more used to.”
Japanese megastar Osaka is largely a product of Florida, the hard court laden hub of US tennis. Clay and grass court tennis may not come naturally but her exceptional game will seemingly make short work of fixing any discrepancies.
With four Slams and undoubtedly more to come in Melbourne and New York, Osaka is already on track for a great career. Winning her first four Slam finals puts her in an extraordinary three-player club in the Open era, alongside Monica Seles (first six) and Roger Federer (first seven).
‘That’s very amazing company. I hope that I can, you know, have like one grain of how their career has unfolded,” Osaka said.
“But, you know, you can only wish and you can only just keep going down your own path. But, yeah, it’s definitely something crazy to hear.”
Across the entire history of tennis, all-time Grand Slam leader Margaret Court was another to win her first four Slam finals, as was the great whose name adorns the Australian Open trophy, Daphne Akhurst.
But true tennis greatness is largely measured in the ability to win on at least two surfaces. Leading tennis pundits immediately jumped on that fact after Osaka overwhelmed a game but outmatched Brady.
Men’s great Mats Wilander, who won seven majors (3x Australian Open, 3x French Open, US Open), backed Osaka to win at least 10 Slams.
“She is very subdued when she wins, which means she wants to win more. I think the only question mark for her now is: can she get comfortable on clay, and can she get comfortable on grass at Wimbledon?” Wilander said on EuroSport.
“Because then there will be four majors she should be able to win. But at the moment she is the best hard court player we have had in the women’s game since Serena Williams was at her best.”
Only 10 women in history have completed a career Grand Slam: Maureen Connolly, Doris Hart, Shirley Fry Irvin, Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. Osaka is seeking entry to that exclusive and historic club. She now has the mentality to match her talent.
Osaka cuts a remarkably more composed and mature figure than the player who won the Australian Open in 2019. Later that year, she left a press conference at Wimbledon close to tears after losing in round one, the burden of not meeting heavy expectations clearly weighing upon her.
Now she appears far more at ease with her superstardom. She took on a Black Lives Matter protest at last year’s US Open and managed to win despite the extra scrutiny. She lashed out over COVID-19-related racism before the Australian Open and survived match points against Garbine Muguruza in round four before going all the way to her fourth Slam title.
Osaka has come to terms with fame and pressure; or at least has learned to handle her discomfit from it.
“I think what I have learned on and off the court is it’s OK to not be sure about yourself,” she said.
“For me, I feel like I’ve always forced myself to, like, be strong or whatever. I think if you’re not feeling OK, it’s OK to not feel OK.
“But you have to sort of go within yourself and figure things out in a way. For me, that’s what I did during quarantine before US Open last year. That’s what I did when I was in quarantine here, too.
“The funny thing is I don’t look at expectations as a burden anymore. I feel like I’m at the point now where it’s something that I’ve worked for, you know. Like, people wouldn’t expect things from me if I hadn’t done things prior. If that makes sense.
“Yeah, I feel like no one has expected things of me when I was younger and now that I have kind of climbed up the ranks, of course there’s going to be more pressures, but I feel like also that’s motivation because I also want to do better for myself, as well.”
Osaka’s zany acceptance speech
Osaka has got one thing going for her when it comes to conquering the other Slams: she is clearly a big-match player. Apart from winning her first four Slams, she clearly locks into those tournaments better than your regular WTA event.
She now has seven career singles titles and more than half are majors. The big stage is becoming her personal playground.
“I’m not sure if it’s something you’re born with but I know that I didn’t play a lot of tournaments when I was a kid, so I’d always want to take the opportunity whenever someone was watching me, I’d feel like it was more fun that way,” she said.
“So maybe that’s how I developed wanting a crowd and wanting to play in front of more people. But I also think it’s because I watched a lot of Grand Slams growing up and seeing the crowds, seeing Arthur Ashe Stadium, seeing how it was in Australia and Rod Laver, and wanting to play in front of people and wanting to be, you know, the person holding up the trophy.”
While adding further Grand Slams is her immediate priority, Osaka suggested that she was also focused on longevity and leaving a positive mark on the game.
She is becoming more self aware and the reality is that she’s fast becoming the face of the sport, as the Serena Williams era gradually draws to a close. She moved up to No.2 in the world rankings, behind Ash Barty, after winning the Australian Open.
“Me, I feel like the biggest thing that I want to achieve is … this is going to sound really odd, but hopefully I play long enough to play a girl that said that I was once her favorite player or something,” Osaka said.
“For me, I think that’s the coolest thing that could ever happen to me. I think I have those feelings of, you know, watching my favorite players. Unfortunately I didn’t get to play Li Na, but, yeah, I just think that that’s how the sport moves forward.”
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