It was 5-5 in the second set, and Naomi Osaka had a look at a down-the-line backhand pass. The shot wasn’t easy, but she struck the ball firmly and seemed to have caught the outer edge of the line – prompting a quick fist-pump. That’s when the linesman shouted, “Out!”. It was a late call, and was confirmed to be correct by Hawkeye after Osaka challenged.
Just as Hawkeye was giving its verdict, the camera zoomed in on Osaka’s face. The change in her expression was drastic; at first she looked desperate but hopeful, but as the confirmation came in, she let out a grimace that would not have been out of place in a Greek tragedy. Immediately, our minds went back to all those women’s finals in recent times where one player painfully collapsed in the face of pressure – the ones involving Sabine Lisicki, Dinara Safina and Ana Ivanovic.
The situation could not have been any more catastrophic for Osaka. She had had three match points with Petra Kvitova serving at 3-5, 0-40 in the second set but had wasted them all, and then got broken back for 5-5 while serving for the championship. The wheels had started to come off her game, and after her anguished look at missing that backhand pass you suspected she was one bad shot away from going into a complete tailspin.
Was Osaka going to be the latest casualty of a high-stakes environment in women’s tennis? Was she going to throw away a match that looked so utterly in her control just a few minutes ago? Was she going to be broken by Kvitova, not just her serve, but also her soul?
It didn’t take long for us to find out. Osaka did lose the second set after losing her serve again at 5-6, but at the start of the third she was back to her old self. Calmly firing aces and forehand winners again, she gave the impression that the previous 15 disastrous minutes had never happened. And that was just our latest cue that in Osaka, we have a certified champion on our hands.
You don’t expect a 21-year-old to be able to put an astronomical choke-job out of her mind in a matter of minutes. By recovering from that mid-match meltdown so quickly, Osaka betrayed the composure of a veteran rather than the volatility of youth. But we should have already known she would be up to the task of handling difficult situations with maturity, considering how mature her game itself is.
Osaka is not like other power hitters, in that she can expertly vary the aggression level in her game depending on the situation. But what struck me during the final today is that her game is not just adaptable; it is also predicated around an extremely high base level of play, the kind that usually comes with years of experience.
Kvitova wasn’t at her best in the match, but she did hit her fair share of big shots from the baseline. It’s just that Osaka never seemed out of her comfort zone against those bullets; she could easily absorb the pace coming from the Czech’s racquet and redirect it, often eliciting an error on the next shot.
Much like Novak Djokovic on the men’s tour, Osaka can make a match competitive against any opponent without needing to summon her most ferocious first-strike tennis. She can patrol the baseline like a boss, comfortably sending back anything that comes her way before unloading on a short ball when she gets the chance.
Osaka’s high base level of play is also what helped her regain the ascendancy in the third set. She never had to play out of her skin to get back into the rallies; all she had to do was play her usual game, and the upper hand would inevitably be hers again. Of course, her mind and her serve had a big role to play in her recovery too, and the fact that she seems to have the whole package is what makes her such an irresistible prospect.
Osaka is now World No 1; she is the first Asian – male or female – to ever reach the summit. She is also the first player since Serena Williams in 2015 to win back-to-back Majors, and the first since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to back up her maiden Slam win with another title at the very next Slam. Is it too early to say we are entering the Osaka Era?
Most of the ingredients are in place, so it is tempting to go there. But there are a few things that the Japanese still needs to work on; her second serve, for instance, is a bit of a liability right now. It differs vastly in speed from her first serve, and Kvitova repeatedly pounced on it for clean return winners.
That Osaka can seemingly conjure first serves at will is masking the problem right now, but that won’t always be the case. There will be days when she can’t buy a first serve, and on those days she will need to be able to rely on her second serve to at least start the point on neutral terms, if not outright win it.
She will also, in all likelihood, need to bring a little more variation into her game, while simultaneously improving her net play. Sure, we have seen in recent times – through the likes of Jelena Ostapenko, Garbine Muguruza and Angelique Kerber – that variation and volleying aren’t exactly prerequisites to win Slams. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that Osaka isn’t just meant for winning a Slam or two here and there; she has the potential to be a dominant and long-term No. 1, and to do that she will have to keep working on her game.
Her opponents will sooner or later devise ways to counter her strengths, and when that happens she will need to change her strategies. We haven’t seen Osaka having to come up with a plan B when her plan A isn’t working, because her plan A has been border-line foolproof so far. But on the long road to greatness she will eventually have to overcome challenges she isn’t prepared for, and we can’t be sure right now whether her game is equipped to come up with new answers on the fly.
But all that is in the unpredictable future. For now, we know that Osaka’s star is burning so brightly it is threatening to put every other Next Gen hopeful – including those on the men’s tour – in the shade. In fact, Osaka is soaring so high right now that it almost feels like an insult to call her a Next Gen player.
The fact that we can say that about her on the same day that she cut such a pitiable figure, on that 5-5 point in the second set, shows just how impressive her recovery was. In case we had doubts before today, we can’t possibly have any now: Naomi Osaka is the real deal.
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Updated Date: Jan 26, 2019 21:23:01 IST