A report by Charlie Eccleshare for London’s Telegraph.
It would have been easy to miss it, but on Saturday night a star was born at the US Open.
Amid all the acrimony, claims and counter-claims, Japan’s 20-year-old Naomi Osaka produced a masterpiece in two parts to win her maiden grand-slam title. The first was the destructive performance that overwhelmed Serena Williams in the opening set; the second was the composure she showed in the closing stages as her childhood idol Williams suffered an on-court meltdown.
The destructiveness of Osaka’s performance had the feel of Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt’s wins against Pete Sampras at the US Open finals of 2000 and 2001, with the young pretender giving the veteran champion a schooling.
That said, Osaka will hope her subsequent trajectory is more like Roger Federer’s after his similarly coming-of-age performance in beating Sampras at Wimbledon 17 years ago.
There were other elements in common with that Federer win, most notably the sense that Osaka’s performance was in no way freakish. Instead it seemed like the logical continuation of consistent and steady improvement. By way of comparison, it felt nothing like Jelena Ostapenko’s whirlwind French Open win last year that seemed at times like a gambler chucking everything on red and winning big.
The omens for Osaka becoming a serial champion look good. Just as Federer ascended the throne after Sampras’s abdication and the interregnum of Juan Carlos Ferrero, Andy Roddick, Hewitt and co., there is a huge opportunity for someone to step up and replace Williams in the coming years.
To give a sense of the openness of women’s tennis right now, the last eight grand slams have produced eight different winners.
As well as the talent to take advantage, Osaka also possesses an endearing personality and a hinterland beyond just forehands and backhands. Only 20 and naturally introverted, she charms most she meets with her offbeat sense of humour and passion for video games like Pokémon.
From a marketing perspective, Osaka is poised to sign a new £6.5 million a year contract with Adidas that would be the biggest deal in women’s tennis. She also counts Yonex, Citizen and Nissin Foods Group among her sponsors and is set for super-stardom in her native Japan. Her American and Haitian heritage add to the intrigue.
In truth, not since Maria Sharapova’s breakout year in 2004 has someone with so much star quality emerged.
On the court, Saturday night suggested Osaka has all the tools to justify the hype and make a breakthrough. If the women’s game feels like a clustered field at the moment, then Osaka is the 10,000m runner about to kick when the bell rings.
The first set against Williams was arguably the best passage of play produced by anyone at a grand slam this year. Osaka bullied Williams with her firepower off the ground, and had the tactical nous to mix up her pace and when required try and expose her opponent’s inferior movement.
“She was exceptional from the start to the finish,” Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou said. “She never tried to overplay.”
Equally as impressive was the way Osaka resisted Williams’ intimidation attempts. The vast majority of players on the WTA Tour shrivel into themselves once Williams goes into “I will not be denied” mode. Not Osaka.
The pre-match build-up had centred on Osaka’s idolisation of Williams, and whether she would be able to put that aside. In the event, Osaka seemed completely unmoved by the occasion. She even let out an involuntary laugh when Williams roared her first “come on!” It was the perfect way to diffuse the situation.
Osaka even let out a few “come ons!” of her own as the match wore on – sending out a message to the crowd and her opponent that she was not here to play the role of bridesmaid.
“I felt like I shouldn’t let myself be overcome by nerves or anything,” Osaka said afterwards. “And I should just really focus on playing tennis because that’s what’s gotten me to this point.”
The second set was an even bigger test mentally, as Osaka was tasked with keeping her nerve and focus amid Williams confronting the umpire and the crowd hissing their discontent.
The way Osaka calmly threw the balls to the other side of the court after being awarded a game for Williams’ third code violation reflected her maturity. She almost seemed disappointed at Williams for the way she was acting, rather than being threatened or shaken up.
Osaka’s nerveless final service game to confirm the victory was a fitting end to a superlative display.
“She was under control the whole time,” Mouratoglou added. “And she controlled everything including her emotions, which of course is the hardest thing when you play your first Grand Slam final. And this was true from the beginning to the end, when she served for the match. She was as calm and in control in the last game as in the first game of the match, and that is rare.”
Through no fault of her own, the trophy ceremony was painfully awkward, with Osaka covering her face to hide her tears. But it will not always be like this. Osaka looks certain to pick up more majors, and it’s unlikely any will be won in such strange circumstances.
She is up 12 places in today’s world rankings to a career high of No 7, with a place at the end of year Singapore finals her to lose.
The US Open win could be just the start, with Osaka possessing the talent and star quality to make Williams’ meltdown a mere footnote in a potentially glittering career.