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Naomi Osaka Found Herself In Danger, Turned Into A Robot, And Held It Down

Illustration for article titled Naomi Osaka Found Herself In Danger, Turned Into A Robot, And Held It Down
Photo: Cameron Spencer (Getty)

It could have unraveled so quickly for Naomi Osaka. Up a set and 5-3, having whittled Petra Kvitova’s service game down to 0-40, Osaka had three straight opportunities to claim her first Australian Open. None of them got her there. First Kvitova tore the court open with her fiercest groundstrokes, letting fly a winner so pure her opponent had to applaud. Then Osaka sent a forehand long. Then Osaka sent a backhand long. All three points passed her by. Two chances to serve out the match didn’t work, either.

From that first match point to the end of that second set, the 21-year-old lost 18 of 22 points. A dead spot like that with the trophy so close is torturous, and Naomi, animated as ever on the court, couldn’t conceal the struggle. During that stretch Osaka yelped after errors, pulled her visor over her eyes, wept, and, at the end of the second set, slunk off the court under the veil of a towel. She needed to get her head right before the deciding set kicked off.

Illustration for article titled Naomi Osaka Found Herself In Danger, Turned Into A Robot, And Held It Down
Screenshot: ESPN

Considering Kvitova’s level of play at that moment, Osaka had no more time for another lapse in focus. She’d been narrowly outplayed for most of the first set, though Kvitova simply couldn’t find a break despite digging deep into all Osaka’s service games, and had to settle instead for a tiebreak. There the Japanese star played a spotless sequence, conceding just two points. It was the first set Kvitova dropped all tournament. They each managed to break serve in the second set, and then Naomi broke again, before that four-game collapse and the toweled exit.

By the time Osaka returned to play the third, she looked as if she had shed any lingering feelings of regret—and, frankly, any feelings at all. “I just felt kind of hollow, like I was a robot sort of,” she said about her third-set mentality after the match. “I was just executing my orders. I don’t know.”

Gone were all the charming self-exhortations: no leg slaps, no fist pumps, no chirps. Gone was all the negative body language, too. In its place was dead-eyed, near-silent execution. She broke in the third game and then held steady from there to win the Australian Open, 7-6(2), 5-7, 6-4.

To take her word, Osaka achieved that robot tranquility with just some perspective and humility. “I just thought to myself that this is my second time playing a final,” she said. “I can’t really act entitled. To be playing against one of the best players in the world, to lose a set, suddenly think that I’m so much better than her that that isn’t a possibility.” Part of what was fascinating about the match was this juxtaposition of two women at different phases of their tennis: a 28-year-old two-time major winner stomping back to the top of the sport after a knife attack, and a 21-year-old still rising and still with some room to grow.

Kvitova can muster raw power comparable to Osaka, but has more craft at her disposal. On serve she can rely on some nasty lefty slice, impeccable placement, and a second delivery that flies nearly as fast as the first. From the baseline, she can improvise and toy with her foe’s expectations:

A drop shot like that is precious for any player who hits authoritatively from the baseline the way these two do. When the norm is punishing power, a little deviation is all the more effective; a soft shallow ball is never more lethal than when your opponent is worried about a deep fast one. Osaka, perhaps inspired by the veteran’s finessed success, tried some of her own in this match, a funky forehand chop and a gawky two-handed backhand version, with adorably bad results in each case. She’ll get better at all that. A better second serve will help stave off feisty returners. An improved net game will let her profit more quickly from her huge groundstrokes; she barely saw the front of the court in this match and lost all three points there. There are still things to learn.


But don’t get it twisted: at present Osaka’s game is untrammeled baseline power, and no woman alive is executing that vision better than her right now. She doesn’t need to fret about all the finer tricks so long as her hammer is smashing everything to bits just fine. New nuances will make her even scarier down the road, but what she has now is obviously good enough for two straight major titles and the No. 1 ranking in the world. It is staggering to watch, too.

The cold-blooded return:

The bazooka winner from behind the baseline:

The hypnotic backhand sequence:

Behind shots like those, Osaka became the first woman in 18 years to back up her first Grand Slam at the very next Grand Slam. Her hard-court dominance has set in so fast that she still, across her whole career, has only played 43 matches on clay, 29 matches on grass, and is just a hair above .500 on each. She even said that she finds the slipping and sliding on these surfaces “a little bit frightening.” There’s still a lot more for her to master—which, all things considered, is a pretty enviable position to be in as a world No. 1. If and when she does figure it out, there will be more of these shiny trophies lying in wait, each one, if we’re lucky, accompanied by another perfect speech.

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