A report by Christopher Clarey for the New York Times.
Naomi Osaka’s ability to deliver a victory speech is, by her own admission, a work in progress, but if she continues to play as well as she did this year in the California desert, she will get plenty of chances to perfect the art.
It has long been clear that Osaka had the requisite power and ball-striking ability to eventually become a force on the women’s tour. But she proved in Indian Wells that she was ready — right here and right now — to take a leading role.
With her improved movement and consistency, the unseeded Osaka rumbled through the women’s draw: dismissing the former No. 1 players Maria Sharapova and Karolina Pliskova and the current No. 1 Simona Halep on her way to the final, where she defeated her fellow newcomer Daria Kasatkina, 6-3, 6-2, on Sunday afternoon.
It was the first appearance in the final of a top-tier WTA event for both 20-year-olds, and it was the first WTA title at any level for Osaka, who speaks softly but can hit as hard as anyone on the circuit.
There is more to her game now as she showed by handling all manner of threats in Indian Wells: powerful flat-hitting baseliners like Sharapova and Pliskova; supreme counterpunchers like Halep; and then more subtle players who thrive on variety like Agnieszka Radwanska and Kasatkina.
The daughter of a Japanese mother and Haitian father, Osaka was born in Japan before moving at age 3 with her family to the United States, where she is still based, training frequently at the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Fla.
“She’s really very powerful, serving good, doesn’t have weaknesses,” said Kasatkina, seeded 20th.
Though they have practiced together on and off the circuit, they had never played an official match at any level until Sunday. Kasatkina, who won her only career title in Charleston last year and reached the final in Dubai last month, had the edge in big-match experience. She also had beaten four former Grand Slam champions on her way to the final: Sloane Stephens, Caroline Wozniacki, Angelique Kerber and Venus Williams.
But she said she never had felt more nervous.
“I don’t know why in Charleston I was able to go on court and forget about these things, but today was a different story,” Kasatkina said.
Her internal battle was not immediately apparent. Both players showed flashes early of the form that had brought them this far. When Kasatkina was serving at 3-4, her topspin forehand suddenly become a liability. She made five errors off that wing in the next seven points, and Osaka soon had the first set in hand. She broke Kasatkina again to start the second.
Osaka said she was very nervous, too. “But my plan was to, like, fake that I’m very calm,” she said.
She did a remarkable job. Vulnerable to making unforced errors in bunches and to faltering when forced to hit on the move, she seemed much more stable under pressure in Indian Wells. She is also working with a new coach, Sascha Bajin, who was Serena Williams’s longtime hitting partner before working with Victoria Azarenka, Sloane Stephens and most recently Caroline Wozniacki. (Osaka’s next match is against Williams, in the first round of the Miami Open on Wednesday.)
“I give Sascha a lot of credit,” said Chris Evert, the former No. 1 who has watched Osaka often in Boca Raton. “He knew what she lacked, what she needed. Her movement is noticeably different.”
What she needs next is some more work on public speaking. She said she had prepared remarks but froze when her name was called at the trophy ceremony. She giggled and meandered her way through her comments, changing tacks repeatedly and finally concluding, “This is probably going to be the worst acceptance speech of all time.”
She has plenty of years ahead of her to improve her delivery as much as she already has improved her game. She will be ranked No. 22 on Monday; Kasatkina will be No. 11. It will be intriguing to see where the next generation goes from here.
For now, after taking flight in Indian Wells, they are taking a flight to the Miami Open, together.
“We share the private jet,” Kasatkina said with a fist pump on Sunday afternoon. “First time in my life.”
It was also a first for Osaka. Any concerns that it might be awkward?
“I don’t think so,” Kasatkina said with a grin. “I mean, it’s going to be all right, I hope. I hope we will get to Miami without any fights during the flight.”