By Ben Rothenberg
As the reigning Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka opened her season earlier this month, she checked herself as she expressed her goals for the rest of the year.
“I think just to try as hard as I can every match,” Osaka said. “Because for me, when I feel like I do that, I somehow end up winning the match.” As she heard herself, her eyes widened. “Oh, that sounds really arrogant,” she said, clearly embarrassed.
Osaka had spoken into a microphone what she has already made clear with her racket over the past two years: Underneath her quiet demeanor, she has an assured confidence that has helped carry her to two Grand Slam titles. She may be soft-spoken in public, but she is also steely and determined.
Osaka, 22, showed that mettle most unmistakably during the 2018 U.S. Open final against Serena Williams, closing out a title even as Williams got into heated arguments with the umpire over penalties and the crowd booed what they felt was unfair treatment for the 23-time Grand Slam champion.
She followed up that victory by winning the Australian Open last year. Now, as the No. 3 seed, Osaka has beaten 42nd-ranked Zheng Saisai in a second-round match, 6-2, 6-4, and she could face the 15-year-old phenom Coco Gauff in the next round.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 22, 2020
Osaka’s first attempt at a Grand Slam title defense ended in the fourth round last year at the U.S. Open, where she lost to Belinda Bencic, an opponent who had beaten her twice previously in 2019. “There were moments where I accepted defeat and I was OK with it,” Osaka said this week. “After the match, I was just so disgusted with myself, because when I was a kid, I would dream to be in that position so I could fight to go to the finals and win it. But for me to like sit there and think that it’s OK to like lose in the fourth round is like kind of pathetic.”
It was after that match that Osaka told herself she would fight for every point. She entered the Australian Open with a 14-1 record since then, winning titles in Beijing and her birthplace of Osaka, Japan, in the fall. Her lone defeat since the U.S. Open came against second-ranked Karolina Pliskova in the Brisbane semifinals earlier this month, a match Pliskova won in three sets after fending off a match point for Osaka.
On the court, Osaka has thrived by turning one of her weaknesses into a strength. A shoulder injury forced her out of the year-end championships in Shenzhen, China, but since then she has been hitting more aces than usual, maximizing her serves to make the most of each use of her shoulder. “I feel like every serve that I serve should count,” she said, “and it’s been working out really well.”
She also arrived in Melbourne with a new guide: the coach Wim Fissette, a Belgian who coached Kim Clijsters and Angelique Kerber to Grand Slam titles, and also worked with other top players, including Simona Halep.
Fissette said Osaka set herself apart by setting her goals so high. “I’ve worked with many top-10 players but there’s a big difference in ambition; you would expect it all to be the same, but it’s not,” Fissette said.
“With a player like Naomi, you go to tournaments to win them, not to play finals or semifinals,” Fissette added. “That’s the ambition, and I love that ambition. I love working under pressure.”
Fissette said he found Osaka to be more tactical than he had expected. And while others would try to avoid pressure at the top of the sport, Osaka has embraced her status as a favorite, he said. “Some players, they really need to be an underdog,” Fissette said. “Others are like her; she doesn’t want to be in an underdog position, because she feels she’s the best out there.”
By hiring Fissette, Osaka broke up a pattern of hiring people who had previously worked with the Williams sisters. And Fissette has coached players to five wins over Serena Williams in the last 11 years, more than any individual player has earned against her on the court.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 21, 2020
Osaka has looked up to Williams since she started in the sport as a girl (“I said, ‘I want to be like her,’ ” Osaka said in 2018 as she described a report she had done on Williams in third grade). Last week, Osaka posted a photo of herself with Williams on Instagram as they sat together during an exhibition for Australian fire relief. She captioned it: “me and my mom lol.”
Williams, who has not always taken kindly to the young players who have made star turns by beating her at Grand Slams, responded with heart emojis to Osaka, whom she first met in 2014. “I have always had some sort of admiration for her, because I met her when she was super, super young,” Williams said of Osaka. “It was really cool to see her grow from that age to No. 1 and multi-Grand-Slam champion. I thought the picture was cute, so I felt like I should like it and comment on it — definitely not the mom, though.”
me and my mom lol. pic.twitter.com/HvCoPpgShm
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) January 15, 2020
Osaka said she still felt star-struck around Williams and other tennis stars, and characterized her interactions with Williams as one-directional. “I’m going to have to give you a briefing of how I am as a person,” Osaka said during the Australian Open draw when asked about Williams. “I don’t talk to people; I just stare at them from a distance. That’s lesson No. 1. Lesson No. 2 is that if I were to talk to Serena, she talks to me and I get surprised that she talks to me, and then I don’t talk back.”
One space where Osaka has been increasingly comfortable expressing herself is in documenting her fashion choices on Instagram. “It’s really weird because people have been telling me they really like my fashion sense,” Osaka said. “Honestly, I’m very sorry, but that’s way more of a compliment than when people tell me they like my tennis.”
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