My exact moment of religious conversion on Naomi Osaka came while watching her play Karolina Pliskova from a few feet away in Indian Wells. Pliskova was and still is a spindly winner machine, and she sent balls bounding into the corners with no desire to see or deal with them ever again. Osaka was doing the same thing, and doing it just flatly better while spanning the baseline more fluidly to boot. Pliskova was then the No. 5 seed, Osaka was unseeded. She’d go onto win the title, an omen of more to come. When they played each other in the Australian Open semifinals on Wednesday night, the effect was the same even if their positions had been reversed.
In Australia, just 10 months later, Naomi Osaka beat Karolina Pliskova all over again—only this time she was the chalk pick, the No. 4 seed with major hardware working her way past and through a No. 7 seed who still has none. Osaka was the one hitting 56 winners to the veteran’s 20. Pliskova might have been on a searing 10-match win streak, but Osaka was planting a pin in her 13th straight win at a major. Her 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 victory offered a handy measure of just how much she’s progressed in the interim. She is no longer just an Overwatch-loving curio ripping shots hard enough to make the Palm Springs elders openly gasp; she more or less rules the hard courts now. It all happened very fast.
It was gripping tennis, too, at least for anyone who likes seeing the fuzz get thumped off the ball. Both players were pummeling their first serves—Osaka had 15 aces—and sinking their teeth into each other’s second serves on the returns, ensuring neither player won more than 37 percent of those deliveries. Osaka and Pliskova both play to kill, and if that sweeping observation doesn’t satisfy you, the numbers offer testimony to just how brutal they were in their approach. There were 181 total points in this match, and 76, or 42 percent, ended on winners. That’s wild!
The diciest moment of the match, for Osaka, came at 1-0 in the third, when Pliskova lashed several returns deep in the court to open up three break opportunities. The 21-year-old came up with big shit in each of them. First a inside-out, inside-in forehand combo:
Then this almost alarming backhand down the line, best enjoyed at court level:
Osaka would hold, then break, and then hold serve through the rest of the match to win.
That earned her a spot in the final, where she’ll play No. 5 seed Petra Kvitova. The stakes are all of a sudden quite high, as the victor takes not just the title but the No. 1 ranking in the world. On paper that all sounds like a dramatic come-up for a 21-year-old who wasn’t even in the top 50 this time last year, and yet somehow the only startling part of Osaka’s fortnight is how routine these wins already look. Only Su-Wei Hsieh genuinely had her scared, using an all-guile game of redirection and off-speed junk to go up a set and 2-4, 0-40. But Osaka powered through that dire scene to win 10 of the next 11 games. It’s all been smooth enough since then to set up a second-straight Slam final. Hopefully she can catch some restorative memes and ZZZ’s before squaring up for it.