• AFP-Jiji


Naomi Osaka, who swept to her fourth Grand Slam title in as many major finals with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over Jennifer Brady on Saturday, has made a rapid and at times uncomfortable climb to the top.

The 23-year-old’s zen-like mentality and increased gravitas on and off the court have elevated her alongside Serena Williams to being the one of the most recognizable female athletes on the planet.

But it is her unceasing politeness away from the battlefield, coupled with the on-court steel that runs through all champions, that makes her stand apart.

“Do you like to be called Jenny or Jennifer?” she almost timidly asked Brady before embarking on her winner’s speech on Saturday.

It was typical of Osaka, who also gave a deferential bow to Williams after knocking out her idol and 23-time Grand Slam champion in the semifinal.

Osaka will rise to No. 2 in the world when the new rankings are released this week after a polished campaign that will reinforce the belief that she has taken over as the new queen of tennis.

It’s a far cry from a year ago when a rattled Osaka felt the strain of expectations as her Australian Open title defense fell apart with a shock loss to a 15-year-old Coco Gauff in the third round.

“She looked very nervous to me, she was under pressure, and she only looked like that because she was not expressing her feelings,” her coach Wim Fissette said.

Weeks later, Osaka was embarrassed as she won just three games against Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo in a Fed Cup tie.

“There’s just a lot of stuff that happened there, surrounding that time, that it really made me think a lot about my life,” she said.

“What is the reason, am I playing tennis to prove stuff to other people or am I playing to have fun because I enjoy it.”

Naomi Osaka's victory over American Jennifer Brady gave her four Grand Slam titles from four final appearances. | REUTERS
Naomi Osaka’s victory over American Jennifer Brady gave her four Grand Slam titles from four final appearances. | REUTERS

But things turned during the pandemic, when Osaka gained new perspective and became a vocal leader in the fight against racial injustice in the United States.

Her increased presence as a campaigner for social justice has fueled Osaka on the court and she now possesses a 21-match unbeaten streak after Saturday’s final, a run that included winning last year’s U.S. Open title for the second time.

“I think the thing that I’m most proud of is (how) 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 think, the quarantine process and seeing everything that’s going on in the world, for me it put a lot into perspective.”

Once painfully shy and uncomfortable in the spotlight, Osaka used her growing stature to weigh in on controversial topics at Melbourne Park, even condemning ex-Tokyo Olympics boss Yoshiro Mori for sexist comments that eventually resulted in his resignation.

Osaka has become the world’s richest female athlete, overtaking Williams, but she’s maintained a humble and respectful attitude amid her rise to stardom.

On Saturday she sought to play down ever-increasing expectations, including recent comments by seven-time Slam-winner Mats Wilander suggesting that Osaka is capable of winning 10 majors.

“I’m taking it in sections. For right now, I’m trying to go for five,” Osaka said, when asked about Wilander’s comment. “After five I would think about maybe dividing the 10, so maybe seven or eight.”

“I don’t like to take things big-picture,” Osaka added. “For me, I like to live in the moment.

“It’s an honor that he said that. But I don’t want to weigh myself down with pressure and expectations.”

Osaka's second Australian Open title will see her rise to second when the WTA's new world rankings are announced. | AFP-JIJI
Osaka’s second Australian Open title will see her rise to second when the WTA’s new world rankings are announced. | AFP-JIJI

Osaka has proven to be unstoppable on hard courts after now winning twice at Melbourne Park and Flushing Meadows.

But she’s struggled elsewhere, having never made it past the third round on the French Open’s clay or Wimbledon’s grass courts.

“I feel like I have to get comfortable on those surfaces,” she said. “I didn’t grow up playing on grass at all.

“I honestly think I’d have better luck on clay, because I think last year I didn’t play bad at all.”

However, when asked where she was most likely to win her first non-hardcourt Grand Slam, Osaka said: “Hopefully clay because it’s the one that’s sooner.”

As her achievements grow, Osaka said she simply hoped to inspire the next generation.

“Hopefully I play long enough to play a girl that said that I was once her favorite player,” she said.

“Unfortunately I didn’t get to play (her favorite player) Li Na.

“I just think that’s how the sport moves forward.”

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