It’s amazing how life can change in an instant. For Naomi Osaka, this instant was more or less three months of hard work.
In December Osaka was ranked 68th in the world and in the midst of obtaining a new coach. Sascha Bajin, famously known for working with a trio of world number ones — Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, and Caroline Wozniacki — agreed to be the next steward of her career. Osaka was known for having gifts that make a successful tennis player. Besides her earnest personality and self-proclaimed awkwardness, she has an easy and powerful service motion, clean ball-striking, and the ability to finish points quickly on her terms. Yet, before Bajin came along, she didn’t possess the confidence or consistency in her strokes that could make her a serious daily threat on the WTA Tour.
Some criticisms were that her shot selection could be hasty and to her disadvantage, or that errors would flow when under pressure. Under Bajin’s mentorship, though, Osaka has thrived. This has quickly become a compatible partnership in which both are eager to prove their worth in their desired profession. At the Australian Open Osaka reached the fourth round, currently her deepest run at a major, and successfully won her first title in Indian Wells by defeating two former World No. 1s and the current one, Simona Halep. Yet many fans still wondered whether her newfound consistency was a true arrival or another mirage in a WTA desert.
Naomi Osaka may have begun to answer those questions on Wednesday with a 6-3 6-2 win that spoiled Serena Williams’ Miami Open homecoming. Williams clearly has more room for growth in her comeback from maternity leave, yet Osaka never let the occasion overwhelm her focus. She openly claims Williams as one of her idols. Her preparation with her team shows the respect she has for the 23-time major champion’s game.
Throughout the match, Williams struggled to create space to hit into against Osaka, who was game enough to hold her own on the baseline and keep Williams from creating more than one break point in each set. In the second set, Osaka showcased her notable service accuracy in striking seven aces — with many over the 110-mph range — while protecting her second serve better than Williams.
Unluckily for fans of Serena, the unseeded Williams will once again return to the practice courts for fine tuning. In her closing post-match statement — a response to her first loss of back-to-back matches since 2009 — she stated, “Every tournament is an opportunity for me to better understand the areas I need to improve to be my best. Naomi played a great match and I learn something each time I play.”
Williams may not be satisfied now, but if Osaka’s win can be a reminding lesson of how transforming oneself can elicit freshly-created opportunities, everything could change in a flash for Serena.
The landscape certainly has changed dramatically for Osaka, as Serena was all too aware on Wednesday afternoon in Key Biscayne.