Naomi Osaka’s WTA Finals could not have gone any worse. Yet, if you had told her in January that her 2018 season would unfold the way it did, she could not have expected anything better.
Osaka’s WTA Finals did not produce a match win, and the physical toll of the season once again hampered Japan’s rising star. Osaka retired from her last round-robin match against Kiki Bertens after losing the first set. Singapore and the season are now behind her. Osaka has two and a half months to recover before the 2019 season moves Down Under to Australia.
2019, of course, can wait. Let’s process what happened for Osaka this past season.
A first point to make is that no, Osaka did not announce her presence in women’s tennis at the U.S. Open — maybe to casual fans, but not to the sport or the people who follow it. The first resounding statement of Osaka’s professional career came in March at Indian Wells, where she overpowered Simona Halep in the semifinals and then calmly took apart Daria Kasatkina in the final. Among the non-major tournaments in tennis, Indian Wells is as big as any other. Osaka dismantled the field, winning seven matches and losing only one set, to Maria Sakkari.
Huh — that sounds familiar, does it not?
When Osaka won the U.S. Open in September, she similarly blitzed the field, losing only one set en route to a prestigious trophy. Aryna Sabalenka — who could become Osaka’s great rival the next decade if tennis is lucky — offered fierce resistance in a highly compelling fourth-round match, but Osaka’s serve remained more consistent in the final set.
Let’s get one thing straight, though: The announcement that Osaka had arrived came in March. The announcement that Osaka was here to STAY came in September.
In the spring, Osaka established her presence on tour. In the late summer, she built it to a much higher level.
What stands out about Osaka’s massive achievements in 2018 is how much toughness Naomi had to display beneath the surface to forge them.
Yes, Osaka lost only one set in both Indian Wells and New York, but making something look easy on the surface is the product of tunnel-vision focus and a willingness to pay the price tennis demands of its practitioners.
Osaka is open and admirably vulnerable in public comments. She is a role model for being open in ways which don’t seek to mask weakness or repress authentic feelings. This is part of why she is a media star and such a fan favorite across the globe. Yet, coexisting with that vulnerability is a hearty competitive appetite which enables her to not drift into complacency when everything is going well.
Indian Wells and the U.S. Open showed that when Osaka takes hold of a situation, she does not let go. Think of Daria Gavrilova, Christina McHale, and many other WTA players who are chronically unable to hold leads and close out matches they are close to winning. So many tennis pros fall victim to #PlayingWithALead, but Osaka had no such problem in the big moments of her season. That requires strength.
What also requires strength as an athlete: Absorbing injuries and the interruptions and frustrations they bring. Osaka was not a health player in June. When she met Kerber in the third round of Wimbledon, the gears on her tennis game were rusty and not ready to make an impact. Everything got straightened out in the late summer, however. As a result, Osaka didn’t merely make a good run; she went all the way to the top of her sport with a major title.
She didn’t merely “hold up” under pressure. She conquered pressure. No example revealed this reality more plainly than her steely, beyond-her-years response to the Serena Williams-Carlos Ramos firestorm in the U.S. Open final. The booing crowd, the unsettled atmosphere, the higher-than-high stakes — Osaka didn’t flinch in the whirl and tumult of that circus.
She is vulnerable yet strong. She makes the sport look easy yet has put in such hard work to arrive at a point where her skills — married with great court coverage and increased defensive capabilities — can take over.
She arrived in California but told the rest of the WTA locker room in New York that she intends to stick around.
The fun is just beginning for a megawatt star who — if the WTA is living right — will become the face of her sport for the next several years.