This modern age of politics has coined a new-age version of a familiar term: “The Resistance.” There was no better “Resistance” heroine at the 2019 Australian Open than Naomi Osaka.
It was impressive enough that Osaka blitzed the field at the 2018 U.S. Open in New York, winning the 14 sets needed to claim a first major title at age 20, while losing only one set. Everything about her game clicked. That didn’t mean she got lucky. She is as talented as any player on tour, and it showed. The point of mentioning how easily Osaka won the 2018 U.S. Open is simply that most major titles aren’t like that. Moreover, on a very deep WTA Tour, there are simply too few cupcake matchups over the course of a seven-round, two-week tournament to expect other major championships to come as easily as that 2018 U.S. Open joyride.
Sure enough, Osaka’s 2019 journey in Melbourne became hugely difficult before the first week was done.
Osaka, now 21, became more of a target for the rest of the tour at this Australian Open. Hsieh Su-Wei had her “wei” with Osaka for the better part of two sets. The Taiwanese change-up artist built a set and 4-2, 40-0 lead on her serve. Osaka was just about to be knocked out of Australia.
Then, in a flurry Petra Kvitova and others could easily recognize, Osaka quieted the gathering storm and reeled off five straight points to break Hsieh and get back on serve. Osaka took that second set and won the third going away.
That moment will be remembered as the turning point of this Australian Open, much as other recent champions were close to losing but stood tall precisely when they had to.
In 2014, Li Na saved a match point in Week 1 to survive and then gather momentum en route to a championship Down Under. In 2016, Angelique Kerber did the very same thing. In 2018, Caroline Wozniacki followed suit. Osaka didn’t save match point, but one Hsieh point for 5-2 in the second set represented something very close to that.
Some people might have looked at the Osaka-Hsieh match and concluded that after pulling off a Houdini act, Osaka would return to the overwhelmingly dominant brand of ball which demolished the competition last September in New York.
It is notable that:
A) such a scenario did NOT unfold;
B) Osaka won the damn tournament anyway.
Yes, Osaka continued to struggle in matches. Anastasija Sevastova won a set off her and took her to 3-3 in the third. Karolina Pliskova won a set and had break point on Osaka’s serve early in set three.
In Saturday’s women’s final, Petra Kvitova saved three championship points, won four straight games to take the second set, and held to start the third set against Osaka, who could have finally allowed the moment to get to her.
Nope. Nope. Nope. Against each successive challenge, and in the face of each new encounter with in-match adversity, Naomi Osaka stood strong. She broke Kvitova in the third game of the third set and — this time, unlike set two — maintained her break lead to the end. She turned the page very quickly and, in the process, restored order in a way her third-round opponent, Hsieh, could not achieve against her.
Osaka completed the huge comeback against Hsieh, and then thwarted Kvitova’s huge comeback attempt a week later. Japan’s best tennis player lived on both sides of various scoreboard situations this past fortnight and mastered every one. Now she is a two-time major champion, a back-to-back major champion, the first maiden major winner to win a major in her next appearance since Jennifer Capriati in 2001, and — as the cherry on top of the sundae — the new WTA World No. 1, to be official on Monday.
Did we say she is only 21?
It is not a new story, but it is told and recalled with great affection and admiration, nearly 40 years after the fact: John McEnroe marvels to this day about how Bjorn Borg lost that 18-16 fourth-set tiebreaker at Wimbledon in 1980, and then gathered himself to win the fifth set. A big part of why the 1980 Wimbledon men’s final endures as an iconic match is that Borg passed one of the supreme tests of tennis in the sport’s most hallowed setting under the largest possible weight of pressure.
Most players — heck, most normal human beings — would have been shattered after losing multiple championship points and enduring a gut punch such as the one Borg absorbed on that day at SW19. Yet, Borg was no ordinary tennis player. He possessed a steely calm rarely matched in the annals of tennis history. That display was classically representative of Timothy Gallwey’s “Inner Game of Tennis,” the mental strength which is needed to be a profoundly great and memorable player.
Naomi Osaka is an inner-game master of the finer arts of tennis. She is irresistible in her endless capacity to offer resistance to the very thought of losing.
She is only getting started, this fireballing server and groundstroke gunner with veins made of ice.