Debating 10 Slams for Osaka, 24 for Serena – Match Points #22

Match points is back to break down some of the key storylines of the 2021 Australian Open. In episode #22, Marion Bartoli Ben Rothenberg, Simon Cambers join host Josh Cohen to talk about what the future might hold for Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams.

February 24, 2021
The figures

After this year’s Australian Open many believe that a new era in WTA tennis has begun. With Serena Williams in the twilight of her career, might it be time for Naomi Osaka to become the dominant force of women’s tennis? In Match Points #22, our esteemed panel discusses the significance of Osaka’s latest title and how that might impact the future of Serena Williams.

Osaka a dominant force in the sport 

Osaka has won four of the last six hard court majors and now is part of an elite group of six active players that own four or more majors. Is she currently the most dominant player in tennis, male or female?

“Not the entire game, obviously on the WTA Tour, yes,” says former Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli. “What really has impressed me the most is the way she is able to deal with all those pressure moments. She hasn’t played her best tennis throughout the Australian Open but every time she was under pressure, especially those two match points she had to save over Garbiñe Muguruza, she’s able to stay so calm and composed, and finds solutions.”

Bartoli is blown away by how well Osaka has handled all the potential pitfalls that come with burgeoning fame and playing Grand Slams with a target on her back.

“For me what impressed me the most is, at her age to be able to deal with all those elements,” she says, adding: “I think she will get ten-plus Grand Slams and that’s quite impressive and I think it’s great to see someone now emerging finally, and able to take control of the this WTA Tour.”

Naomi Osaka, 2021 Australian Open

Simon Cambers notes that Osaka has been bullet proof in the business end of majors. Her strike rate when reaching beyond the round of 16 is perfect, and it’s a testament to her maturity.

“Other players know that she’s virtually unbeatable if you get to the quarters, semis and finals of a Slam,” Cambers said. “I think she’s just mentally so much stronger, emotionally so much better than she was when she was younger, for obvious reasons.”

Cambers also points out that Osaka used the down time during the pandemic to grow, both on and off the court.

“The whole coronavirus period allowed her to sort of mature away from the public eye, find her voice, find what she wanted to say and do with herself and in combination with a very good coach in Wim Fissette, she is absolutely where she wants to be. On hard courts she is by far the best player in the world at the moment, on clay and grass there’s a way to go,” he says.

Ten is a long way from four 

Many wonder if Osaka will be the next player to hit the double-digit mark in terms of Slam titles. While it’s something that can’t be ruled out, given that she’s only 23, Cambers thinks that it really depends on Osaka’s ability to develop her game away from the hard courts.

“If she starts to master clay and grass, then she is going to win stacks of Grand Slams, simple as that,” says Cambers, adding: “It’s a bit of a stretch to suddenly go from never having gone past the third round and having real sort of mental struggles with clay and grass.”

Ben Rothenberg believes that we should all temper our predictions for Osaka, and let her enjoy the moment. Four Grand Slam titles is a feat in and of itself, he says.

“I want people to calm down a little bit. Ten is still far away,” said Rothenberg. “Venus Williams was a great player for many, many years, got to seven in her career. Justine Henin was a great player, who was good on all surfaces, and got to seven. Andre Agassi got to eight and he was a big force for a lot of years, John McEnroe never got to ten. It feels like it is an unfairly high bar to set – just because she gets to four to vault all the way to ten.”

Is Serena really contemplating retirement? 

Osaka was able to deliver a difficult loss to 23-time major champion Serena Williams in the Australian Open semi-finals, and it was that defeat that caused many to wonder if Serena had played her last Australian Open match. Will the great champion play on in 2021 if she has yet to chase down Margaret Court’s elusive Grand Slam title record?

“If she gets to the end of the US Open and she’s one away she might carry on,” says Cambers. “Australia’s always been a good place for her. And she did play well, she had a good tournament. Best she’s moved in god knows how long, she looked really good and just came up against Osaka who was strong enough to beat her.”

Marion Bartoli believes Serena will eventually win a 24th major, and the Frenchwoman is hopeful that the American legend will return to Melbourne in 2022.

“I think if she gets to 24 by the end of this year, and she feels she’s okay and her body is still fine, I think she will carry on for another Australian Open,” says Bartoli. “I think if there is more disappointment and her body sort of lets her down and she is carrying another injury, I think it will start to be more and more difficult. I don’t think she has made up her mind yet.”

Like many, Bartoli is not ready to think about the sport without Serena in it.

“I just can’t imagine when Serena will walk out of the game, I think it will be one of the saddest days that tennis will have to face.”

Osaka complicates Serena’s plans 

Serena looked as fit as she has been in years in Melbourne, and notched brilliant wins against Aryna Sabalenka and Simona Halep to reach the semi-finals. But in the end, Osaka proved too menacing a foe for her to handle.

Rothenberg thinks the dynamic of her rivalry with Osaka, and the fact that the Japanese star has controlled Serena on the biggest stages, is something to keep an eye on.

“I could see it going either way,” Rothenberg says when asked if Serena will return next year. “I think something that’s different about Serena in this phase of her career, she doesn’t completely control her own destiny the way we always thought she did before about results. There is this new force out there in Osaka.”

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