Who, me? Yes, NAOMI OSAKA, by winning your second straight Grand Slam title, you've served notice that a new era of women's tennis has begun
FINALLY, A MOMENT of peace. All those cameras had stopped whirring, all those adults had stopped encroaching on her time and space. It had been 16 hours or so since Naomi Osaka won the Australian Open women's singles title. She'd gone through the media gantlet, slept a few fitful hours and posed with the trophy on a beach at sunrise. She'd also called her mom, who'd been accompanying Naomi's older sister, Mari, to a smaller pro tennis tournament, 10,000 miles away in Michigan. ("Good job," Tamaki Osaka told her younger daughter. "But we don't need to talk now; get some rest!")
Osaka had been standing in the backyard of the spacious home in Melbourne that IMG, the management agency, had rented for its players. As the agents and coaches and trainers and publicists went about their merrymaking—eating the catered Nobu sushi and smiling contented smiles—Osaka, the object of this celebration, slinked away. Without a word, she climbed into a hot tub and stared up at the vast sky. "This," Osaka told a friend, "I could get used to."
Presumably Osaka meant whiling away a Sunday afternoon luxuriating in a backyard Jacuzzi. As for this business of claiming major singles titles, she's already grown quite accustomed to that. After winning the 2018 U.S. Open last fall, Osaka needed just 138 days to squelch any one-hit-wonder skepticism. Venturing Down Under and winning her second straight major, she became the first Asian player, male or female, to achieve a No. 1 ranking. And at age 21—and somewhat to her chagrin—Osaka has emerged as one of the brighter stars in the global sport cosmos.
When Osaka broke through and won the U.S. Open, it was with a display of unanswerable power and then unshakable poise. In the memorably melodramatic final, she kept her head as Serena Williams lost hers. In Melbourne, Osaka showed off a different skill set: nuance, patience and a talent for mid-match alterations.
Four of her seven assignations required a third set. No matter. She adjusted—to opponents who sliced, who played at a disruptive pace, who hit with lefty spin and angles—and found solutions. "She's such a quick learner," says her coach, Sascha Bajin. "They were different puzzles. And Naomi didn't just solve them. She enjoyed solving them."
In the final Osaka faced Petra Kvitová of the Czech Republic. She played nerveless tennis and held three match points, leading 7--6, 5--3, love--40 as Kvitová served. Suddenly Osaka lost her way and, with it, four straight games. She left the court between sets, had a good cry. Then she returned and closed out the match 6--4. "The third set," she said pragmatically, "was like a fresh start."
Osaka had barely clasped her trophy when the tennis salon began its inevitable game of comparison. Which player did Osaka call to mind? Three names in heavy rotation: Boris Becker, for his precociousness and stardom in a country that had not previously enjoyed much tennis success. Pete Sampras, for his easy power and his knack for summoning his best tennis when the situation most demanded it. The other: Monica Seles, whose ferocity in competition and unmistakable clutch-ness were so starkly at odds with an otherwise giggly, self-deprecating personality.
That this exercise necessitated a trip back to the early 1990s says plenty about Osaka's generational talent. The truth, however, is that Osaka is sui generis, a half-Japanese, half-Haitian, Florida-dwelling phenom, possessed of both abundant charm and abundant quirk.
By her own admission, Osaka wasn't sure how to react after the U.S. Open. "People were calling me things like 'champ,' and I kept walking," she says. "Then someone would poke me and be like, 'Don't you know? They're talking to you.'"
If Osaka has grown stratospherically wealthy since then—her endorsement haul, sources tell SI, will cross the $30 million mark in 2019—celebrity is still attire she wears awkwardly. Asked whether she is improving at public speaking, Osaka, a proud introvert, said, winsomely, "I would love to be better at talking. I don't even talk normally, like, in my day-to-day. I might speak, like, 10 sentences. Honestly, I wouldn't really be that thrilled if I had to practice talking."
Practicing tennis, on the other hand, remains a joy. Antsy, which she claims to get if she goes more than a day without playing, Osaka was back on the court last week. "It's not like I can't improve more," she says. Which must inspire dread in the rest of the field. She may hate talking, but we'll be hearing a lot more from her. Sorry, champ, that's reality.