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Contemplating, coping, and conquering: Osaka sets herself apart

Matt Zemek

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When Naomi Osaka won the 2019 Australian Open with a victory over Petra Kvitova in a thrilling women’s final, it seemed that the sky was the limit for a young woman of 21. As a diehard tennis fan or close tennis observer, I would bet you probably thought Osaka would win at least one of the next six major tournaments.

Yet, life refuses to be this linear. Osaka didn’t suddenly figure out clay or grass, and when she got to the 2019 U.S. Open to defend her title, she was injured. Those next six majors slipped away from her, such that when she came to the 2020 U.S. Open, the sense of certainty about her prospects didn’t exist to the same extent.

As dominant as Osaka was at the 2018 U.S. Open and as resourceful as she was at the 2019 Australian Open, she had to build back to a place of excellence. She had to reestablish every ounce of dominance and in-match resilience which had led her to the top of the sport.

Here we are, marveling at Osaka’s 2021 Australian Open title. It was completed with a firmly-in-control performance over Jennifer Brady, and it was mostly forged on the foundation of overpowering, imposing tennis. Yet, it also included the 15-minute sequence which will always be remembered as the most important moment of the fortnight, the 3-5 comeback in the final set against Garbine Muguruza, in which the 23-year-old calmly wiped away two match points and steered herself out of trouble. Osaka won the 2019 Australian Open by digging out of a very bad spot against Hsieh Su-Wei. She similarly pulled off a great escape two years later.

85 percent dominance, 15 percent Houdini. Great players often win major titles that way, mostly cruising but finding clarity and solutions when a knife is held to their throat.

Abruptly, not winning any of those six consecutive majors (2019 Roland Garros through 2020 Roland Garros, with Wimbledon being cancelled last year) now is totally forgotten. It seems like the tiny and inconsequential blip on the radar screen it in fact is.

Look at how far Naomi Osaka has risen not just in the present moment, but on an all-time scale, with this fourth major title:

That’s remarkable.

Let’s push aside the questions about Osaka solving clay or grass. Let’s imagine a world in which — for the next 10 years — the Japanese superstar continues to master the two hardcourt majors, akin to what she has done over the past three years. Osaka is looking at a major title haul in the neighborhood of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova if she pockets merely one hardcourt major per year for the next decade. Considering the lofty standard she has established at hardcourt majors — or more precisely, which she first established a few years ago and has completely rebuilt today — that is not a ludicrous prediction to make.

No, it’s hardly guaranteed, but it just as certainly doesn’t come across as absurd.

Osaka might still be in a long-term process of finding answers and discovering the right way to play on other surfaces, but in hardcourt majors, her inner game and her physical prowess have created a perfect match.

She went through a lot of ups and downs in the Muguruza match but gathered herself and locked down her focus — the way Novak Djokovic does when under pressure — when she absolutely had to. In her other six matches, she soared above her opposition. This is what she does: 85 percent dominance, 15 percent Houdini.

It seems bound to continue for at least a few more years, provided Osaka can stay injury-free.

There is one more point to emphasize about Osaka’s meteoric rise, the kind of detail which can’t be omitted from this reaction to her fourth major title: Osaka has become, on hardcourts, the post-Serena rock of dependability in women’s tennis, a point underscored by the pandemic.

The pandemic put so many players in highly inconvenient situations — in Melbourne, yes, and also in New York and Paris for last year’s U.S. and French Opens. Osaka didn’t win either the U.S. or French Opens in remotely normal circumstances pertaining to match preparation and crowd environments. In this sense, her U.S.-Australia hardcourt double — now achieved twice — has occurred in completely different conditions. The 2018-2019 double was a “normal” one, the 2020-2021 double a pandemic achievement.

The uncertainty of the pandemic is one detail to absorb in processing the extent to which Naomi Osaka found a zen mindset and again brought her best tennis to the court. The uncertainty of women’s tennis in recent years is also necessary to once again invoke.

It is worth reminding ourselves that in 2019, only two women made more than one major semifinal: Serena Williams and Elina Svitolina. A total of 12 different women made major semifinals. That’s parity on a very large scale — quality parity, but still parity, a “jump ball” in terms of expecting specific players to go deep in important tournaments.

What Osaka is doing on a broader level — and what she has done in Melbourne by handling both the pandemic and her opposition with clarity and self-assurance — is cutting women’s tennis in half.

In clay or grass majors, yes, we’re still in a world where we have no idea what will happen before Roland Garros or Wimbledon. Serena making the final at Wimbledon is the closest thing we have to a sure bet, but in terms of winning the whole thing, nope — we really don’t know what’s coming around the bend.

In hardcourt majors, however? Naomi Osaka is that sure bet, that rock of dependability, who towers above the rest of the field.

Would the pandemic scramble and distort the reality of women’s tennis at this 2021 Australian Open, or would Naomi Osaka tame the field and take her place in history? That was the foremost question on the minds of a lot of pundits and observers before the fortnight began.

Naomi Osaka didn’t merely answer that question; she answered it so decisively that it’s hard to think of upcoming hardcourt majors as anything other than Osaka’s to lose. That’s the way we thought of most majors in relationship to Serena Williams before she became a mother in 2017.

Naomi Osaka contemplated her game and the pandemic. She coped. She conquered. Words fail to adequately express the enormity of this fortnight’s achievement Down Under, and the enormity of what a young career has already produced in full.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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