Naomi Osaka confident she can make a case for Australian Open defence

Tumaini Carayol
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: Scott Barbour/EPA</span>
Photograph: Scott Barbour/EPA

It is difficult to think of many more impressive sequences in recent tennis history than the madness that unfurled in last year’s women’s Australian Open final. Following all the suffocating drama surrounding her 2018 US Open victory over Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka had arrived in Australia with a profile that perhaps no other new player, male or female, had managed to attain in the entire decade.

Most players would have struggled in the aftermath of the US Open match, but Osaka was still unsatisfied. She entered Melbourne to win and she ground her way into the final where she outplayed Petra Kvitova for two sets, eventually building a 7-6, 5-3 with triple championship point.

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The match seemed to be over, but Kvitova saved those championship points and she rolled through consecutive games. Across the net, Osaka panicked. She sprayed unforced errors. She clasped her visor and pleaded to her team. After double-faulting to give away the second set, Osaka left the court with tears descending down her cheeks and her title hopes seemingly in ruins as one of the great grand slam meltdowns beckoned.

Instead, 50 minutes later she became the first woman to win her first two slams back-to-back since 2001. Nobody quite understood just how tough Osaka was until she matter-of-factly described her clarity even as she despaired: “I just thought to myself that this is my second time playing a final,” she said. “I can’t really act entitled, be playing against one of the best players in the world, lose a set [and] suddenly think that I’m so much better than her that that isn’t a possibility.”

When Osaka is not exterminating effortless 100mph forehands, it can be easy to forget how ambitious and driven she is. Away from the courts, Osaka often seems younger than her age. She is funny and eternally honest. She pauses to think before each answer, she tosses in cultural references that invariably lead to errors from the stenographers who aren’t quite knowledgeable in K-pop and memes.

For Osaka, her defining trait is her shyness. After her participation in the Rally for Relief exhibition, she was asked whether she had sought out Serena Williams for business advice. She responded with a sigh: “So, I have to give you a briefing on how I am as a person. I don’t talk to people, I just stare at them from a distance.”

As Osaka’s 2019 evolved into an amalgamation of joy and anguish, much of her struggles seemed to reflect an introvert learning how to function as in her new celebrity world. Just a couple of weeks after the Australian Open, Osaka announced that she had split from her coach, Sascha Bajin, even though they had just won two consecutive slams together.

The abruptness of the split led to vicious speculation about her motives and Osaka became determined to prove herself to the people who thought she could not thrive without her former coach. She instead fell in the third round of the French Open and the first round of Wimbledon.

In Paris, she admitted that she felt “there has been a weight on me”. During the grass season, she lost to the same player, Yulia Putintseva, in the two events she played. After the first defeat in Birmingham she skipped her press conference and then, after her loss at Wimbledon, she blindly walked for hours around Wimbledon Common.

As her US Open title defence beckoned, Osaka posted a long note on social media. She called the year “the worst months of her life” and said that she had not enjoyed her tennis since the Australian Open. She vowed to rediscover how to enjoy her tennis, to open up more to her loved ones and to ensure that singular results do not weigh so heavily on her psyche.

It worked. Despite losing her US Open title, Osaka ended 2019 striking the ball as viciously as she had begun. She split with her new coach, Jermaine Jenkins, and instead of seeking out a new coach she chose to travel with her father, Leonard Francois. He focused on talking to his daughter like a daughter, ensuring that she was always calm and enjoying herself on the court. She calmly and happily blitzed through the end of the season with an 11-match winning streak, finally winning on home soil in Osaka and then following up with an enormous title in Beijing.

As her season wound down, she described the year as U-shaped, with the hope that the direction would continue to move upwards in the new year.

Osaka will begin her title defence on Monday against the world No 54, Marie Bouzková, fully aware that she is in a strong position to defend her title. Her forehand and serve can burn down any defence and her game has been enriched over the past two years by her increased mobility and her ability to open up the court with wicked angles.

As difficult and uncomfortable as last season often was, she appears to have entered the new year stronger and more mature than ever.

“Last year, I feel like I was young,” she said on Saturday. “I was just a young kid going out. My goal was to win and I was not going to let anything stop me. But I feel like now I appreciate every win because I know what it took to get it.”

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