Naomi Osaka, 23, claimed her fourth major title in the last 2 ½ years Saturday, defeating Jennifer Brady 6-4,6-3 in the Australian Open final. Two days earlier, Japan’s rising superstar ousted Serena Williams 6-3, 6-4 in the semifinals, once again cutting short Serena’s bid for a record-tying 24th major title. Her two victories in essence symbolized the passing of the baton between a legend-in-the-making and a legend in decline.
Osaka has won all 21 of her singles matches since the Coronavirus pandemic curtailed play on the pro tours. She has beaten Serena, 39, in three of four head-to-head matchups. Though the victory moved the World No. 3 pro just a notch – to No. 2, she replaced Serena as the top favorite whenever she enters a WTA Tour event.
“She’s gonna win a lot more, there’s very little doubt about that,” said former pro Jim Courier, an ESPN analyst.
Former pro Chris Evert, also of ESPN, agreed. “I feel like Naomi Osaka is starting to form an aura around her now of almost invincibility, on hard courts, something we’ve seen for 20, 25 years with Serena,” Evert said.
Before leaving the court Thursday, Serena smiled, as she waved to the fans. Was the gesture her way of saying goodbye? “If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone,” she said. She became teary-eyed when asked to explain her performance. She responded with “I’m done,” then stood and abruptly left the media room.
Osaka notched victory No. 1 against Serena in the 2018 U.S. Open final but called the victory ‘bittersweet’ because it was marred by a dispute between Serena and the chair umpire, which drew a game penalty against Serena and boos from the crowd. “It wasn’t necessarily (my) happiest memory,” Osaka said. Still, it was a joy for her to compete against the player she idolized during her junior and early pro years.
“Even when I was a little kid, I always dreamed that I would play Serena in a final of a Grand Slam,” she said.
In the last few years, Osaka has evolved into a self-assured pro and a more confident person, who now strives to be a good and gracious citizen, as well as a dominant champion.
“I have this mentality that people don’t remember the runners-up,” she said. ” The winner’s name is the one that’s engraved. I fight the hardest in the finals. I think that’s where you sort of set yourself apart.”
She became a strong supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and has been praised by some and pummeled verbally by others. At times, her verbal volleys have been as stinging as her volleys on court. Accused by one of her Twitter followers of being racist toward white people, Osaka said, “My condolences to you. I know it must be hard to be illiterate … Being silent is never the answer. Everyone should have a voice in the matter and use it. That some people have said we as athletes should stick to sports is really insulting.”
In her on-court victory chat, she thanked the limited crowd for their attendance and support. “I didn’t play my last Grand Slam with fans (attending), so just to have this energy means a lot,” she said. “Playing a Grand Slam event is a super privilege right now and it’s something I won’t take for granted. Thank you for this opportunity.”