It is one of the central tasks — and measurements — of elite tennis players: Do you back it up? No, I am not referring to trash talk, but to results at the most important tournaments.
Can you do it again? Can you follow up something here with something more over there?
Can you take what you achieve in a new moment and then re-create new moments in another place, another city, another country, another continent, where conditions are different, where you hadn’t previously tasted success?
It was very impressive when Jelena Ostapenko won her first major at Roland Garros in 2017 and then went to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon a month later. It is true that Ostapenko hasn’t become a dominant force in women’s tennis over the past year and a half, but she hasn’t become a total flameout, either, having reached last year’s Wimbledon semifinals. It is not a guarantee of greatness, but it sure is an encouraging sign when a young player can achieve at the highest level and then — in her next major tournament — back up that result with another strong showing.
Naomi Osaka is backing it up… and in the process, moving forward.
The 21-year-old made history with her win over a physically limited and generally snake-bitten Elina Svitolina in Wednesday’s quarterfinal at the Australian Open. It wasn’t so much that Osaka reached her first Australian Open semifinal, though that is certainly a milestone to be proud of. This is what I more precisely had in mind:
Indeed, Osaka is trying to be the first maiden major champion to reach the semis at her next Slam since 2005 US Open champ Clijsters at the 2006 Australian Open. https://t.co/ZJTp5QMpQp
— 𝒟𝒶𝓋𝒾𝒹 𝒦𝒶𝓃𝑒ツ (@DKTNNS) January 23, 2019
The other three major champions of 2018 — Caroline Wozniacki, Simona Halep, and Angelique Kerber, all 27 or older — failed to get past the fourth round. Osaka, 21, is in the semis with every chance of winning back-to-back majors.
What has impressed me the most about Osaka this fortnight is that she is winning matches in a manner opposite her U.S. Open joyride.
Last August and September, Osaka destroyed the field — much as Petra Kvitova is dismantling opponents this January in Melbourne. Osaka’s only lost set came against Aryna Sabalenka in the fourth round. Sabalenka and Osaka were the talk of the tennis community among the younger-age cohort entering this tournament, and to be very clear, Sabalenka lost less because of her own shortcomings than because of how well Amanda Anisimova played in the third round. Nevertheless, Osaka has moved to the semis. Sabalenka must wait to make a bigger breakout statement.
Osaka got to the semis in Melbourne by fighting through choppy waters. This was not the smooth sailboat excursion she had in New York.
The unorthodox, off-pace, variety-laden styles of both Hsieh Su-Wei and Anastasija Sevastova threw Osaka off her game. She was hugely frustrated for large portions of both matches. She was in massive trouble against Hsieh, down 4-2 and 40-0 against Hsieh’s serve in set two with her tournament appearing to be just about over. She rescued herself there, and she rescued herself after losing the first set and being 3-3 in the third against Sevastova. She got broken consecutive times by Svitolina late in the first set on Wednesday… but broke her opponent three straight times to win the set. She then cruised through the second.
She won the U.S. Open by floating above the clouds. Naomi Osaka has reached the Australian Open semis by wrestling in the mud and winning ugly. (She was minus-9 in backhand winners-versus-errors in set one against Svitolina: 3 W, 12 UFE.)
You know who wins like that? Great players. They will have tournaments when they dominate, and they will then encounter tournaments when all the pieces don’t fit together… but they make them work enough to advance.
Naomi Osaka is still a work in progress, but make no mistake (or rather, make mistakes — she overcomes them!): This superb athlete is progressing.
She knows how to back up one good result with another.