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Australian Open

Naomi Hardcourt Osaka is a tower of strength

Matt Zemek

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Naomi Osaka’s middle initial is not officially the letter “H.”

Yet, in tennis terms, it might as well be.

Naomi H. Osaka is a person in which the middle initial stands for “Hardcourt.”

There is a version of Naomi Osaka on clay and grass which has not yet made the second week of either Roland Garros or Wimbledon. On red dirt or green lawns, Osaka is closer to the start of a learning curve that to the end of a graduate school education she is ready to apply.

That’s one iteration of Naomi Osaka.

The other iteration — Naomi H. Osaka — takes the reliable, even bounce of a ball on cement and hits the cleanest, most furious, most penetrating shots on the WTA Tour, by a large margin. This version of Osaka just outclassed Serena Williams, 3 and 4, to advance to the Australian Open final as a heavy favorite over either Jennifer Brady or Karolina Muchova.

Hardcourt Osaka sets a standard no one else can touch (with the exception of Garbine Muguruza, who gained match points on the Japanese superstar in the fourth round of this Australian Open but watched her opponent swat away a couple of winners).

It is in no way an insult, a jab, or an attempt at diminishment to separate Osaka into her hardcourt self and her non-hardcourt self. That’s simply the landscape of women’s tennis as it exists right now.

Osaka is one win away from a fourth major title at age 23. All four titles would be on hardcourts.

Osaka is one win away from winning one year’s U.S. Open and the next year’s Australian Open — taking the two hardcourt majors consecutively — for the second time. She won the 2018 U.S. Open and then won in Melbourne four and a half months later at the end of January in 2019. She is on the verge of replicating that feat (only in February, not the end of January) two years later.

You will recall that Osaka did not win the 2019 U.S. Open because she was hurt. She clearly struggled to move and cover the court in the fourth round of that Open, when Belinda Bencic took advantage of her limitations. When Osaka is fully fit, however, women’s tennis — such a parity-defined sport with tremendous depth and diversity of talent — has not been able to unearth a challenger who can knock her off her perch.

On crushed red brick and on manicured lawns, Naomi Osaka has yet to find the secret to success. She has yet to solve the puzzle or crack the code.

On polished pavement, however, Naomi H. Osaka — the hardcourt heavyweight — is collecting wins left and right, continuing to prevent Serena Williams from notching major title No. 24.

The global tennis community sits in awe of Naomi Hardcourt Osaka. Meanwhile, Serena Williams has to be thinking to herself: “If I’m going to get 24, Wimbledon is probably where I have to do it.”

At the U.S. Open, we know who has the upper hand in this matchup if it occurs again in a semifinal or final.

Naomi H. Osaka — the real deal with a fictional middle initial — has thrown down a marker no one has been able to touch in Melbourne.

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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