“New boss” Naomi Osaka primed for next step on path to greatness

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Japan's Naomi Osaka will win her fourth Grand Slam title if she beats surprise finalist Jennifer Brady in the Australian Open final on Saturday

On the eve of the Australian Open, Naomi Osaka was asked what she thought about her draw, a path to the final that began with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and which had Caroline Garcia, Ons Jabeur, Garbine Muguruza, Bianca Andreescu and Serena Williams all as potential opponents. Her answer was revealing.

“Actually, I’m kind of excited,” she said. “I like playing tough people, especially in Slams.”

Naomi Osaka 2021 Australian Open

Growing maturity

It was a telling moment and a stark contrast from one year ago, when Osaka lost to Coco Gauff in the third round. In the intervening year, the Japanese has matured and found her voice, enjoying the time away from the limelight, because of the Coronavirus break, to work out what matters most.

A leader off the court, fighting for the Black Lives Matter cause, she now looks calm, assured and confident on it. As she prepares to face American Jennifer Brady of the Australian Open on Saturday, the 23-year-old admits she’s in a good place, mentally, while her tennis has flowed in victories over two former Grand Slam champions, in Muguruza and Williams.

Naomi Osaka, Trayvon Martin mask

“Before the match with Coco Gauff, I asked her how she was,” her coach Wim Fissette said on Friday. “She told me she was OK, everything was good. She was obviously not. She was completely blocked by her emotions in that match.

“Gaining the trust of a player is a day-by-day thing. Step by step, we were getting closer as a team and she started kind of expressing her feelings after Australia when we were at the Fed Cup in Spain. She understood that we were listening and understanding her, her feelings. And if you express your feelings, obviously it helps you a lot also releasing tension, releasing pressure. From then on, she has been really honest with her feelings. She’s expressing when she was nervous more and more, how she’s feeling, what worries she has before the match, just letting it out.”

It has clearly worked. Osaka is the big favourite for the final against surprise finalist Brady, the match giving her an opportunity to win a fourth Grand Slam title – and a second in succession, having skipped Roland-Garros after her US Open win last September.

Naomi Osaka 2021 Australian Open semifinals

Henin: “There’s a new boss”

Already the only active woman, other than Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Kim Clijsters, to have won more than two Grand Slam titles, her win over Serena in the semi-finals really felt like the passing of the torch. Williams will have her opportunities for that record 24th slam triumph as the year progresses, but Osaka is the real deal, and stands well poised to become the dominant force in the women’s game, even before Serena hangs up her racquets.

“To me, women’s tennis has a new boss,” former world No 1 Justine Henin said on Eurosport this week. “Naomi Osaka has this capacity, she has taken another dimension. I think she is charismatic, she doesn’t have a lot weakness. She does have her ups and downs, she can improve on the percentage of first serves, she sometimes does a lot of mistakes but I was also impressed (that) when she has to play well, when she has to serve well, she plays like a champion. I’m very confident she will win more Grand Slams.

“Clearly Osaka will be the favourite in the final, it wouldn’t be honest to say the opposite. You always have to be careful. But Naomi Osaka is completely ready. Physically, mentally, she showed that she is really strong. Naomi, for sure, will be the big favourite for this match.”

Pressure on Osaka

In theory, the 25-year-old Jennifer Brady has little to lose. The American is riding the crest of a wave after following up her run to the semis at the US Open by reaching her first Grand Slam final. She knows what to expect from Osaka, having pushed her all the way in that semi-final in New York and after taking a longer route to this point than most, is determined to make the most of the occasion.

“I don’t know how I’m gonna feel on Saturday,” Brady said. “I can say I can enjoy the moment and just try to play tennis and not really think too much about it, but there’s gonna be moments, there’s gonna be games, there’s gonna be points where I’m going to be thinking about, ‘Wow, this could be my first Grand Slam title’. I will definitely have those thoughts. It’s more just trying to control the emotions.”

The pressure, then, will be on Osaka. At times in her career, especially just after she won the Australian Open in 2019 – coming off her first slam title at the US Open – dealing with pressure has been too much. Being world No 1 was something that weighed heavily on her shoulders.

Naomi Osaka, Melbourne Summer Series 2021

Osaka: “No one remembers the runners-up”

Now, though, she has evolved into a player who can handle the pressure, handle the expectations, even someone who has learned to enjoy the big occasion.

“I have this mentality that people don’t remember the runners-up,” she said. “You might, but the winner’s name is the one that’s engraved. I think I fight the hardest in the finals. I think that’s where you sort of set yourself apart. It’s the other person won as many matches as you did. It’s something that I think — I don’t know, it’s like the biggest fight.”

Both women have big serves and powerful groundstrokes, but Fissette believes Osaka has much more to her game these days.

“I think that’s the best thing about Naomi,” he said. “She’s a big server, she’s a big hitter, but she’s a lot more than that. She’s also a great thinker on the court. A lot of times you feel the pressure, you maybe fear to lose. But her mindset is just looking at the positives, like this is exactly where I want to be. This is what I train for. This is the moment where I want to play my best tennis. learn every day from her, which perspective she’s looking at the match. I think it’s very interesting.”

Wim Fissette working with Naomi Osaka during 2020 Australian Open

No 22 seed Brady may be a surprise name in a Grand Slam final but Osaka knows how good the American be.

I played Brady in the semis of the US Open – it’s easily one of my most memorable matches,” she said. “I think it was just super high-quality throughout. For me, it’s not really surprising at all to see her in another semis or another finals.”

Mental strength, new perspective

When you’re trying to win Grand Slam titles, and become the best player in the world, you have to deal with everything that comes your way, adapt to the circumstances. In the past, dealing with 14 days in a hotel, with limited time for practice, might have been too much. Now, the new Osaka believes she can handle anything, on and off the court.

“I think the thing that I’m most proud of is now mentally strong I’ve become,” she said. “I used to be really up and down. For me, I had a lot of doubts in myself.

“I don’t know, the quarantine process and seeing everything that’s going on in the world, for me it put a lot into perspective. I used to weigh my entire existence on if I won or lost a tennis match. That’s just now how I feel any more. Opening myself up more to my team, having longer talks with Wim before I go out, expressing the nerves that I feel instead of bottling it all up and trying to deal with it by myself. I feel like just being secure in myself as a person and knowing that the people that I love will still love me, like my family won’t hate me because I lose a tennis match and stuff like that.

“When I was younger…I felt like my goal was to make history, to at least have one thing that I was able to do. I would say I wanted to be the first Japanese person to win a slam. I think that was my goal. Then there was more things to do. So for the me right now, of course it’s nice to see your name on a trophy or your name on a wall. But I think bigger than that, I feel like I’m playing with a different purpose for this trip.”

It’s a perspective that is likely to stand her in good stead as the years go on. If she beats Brady on Saturday, she’ll take another step toward greatness.

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