WUHAN, CHINA — Naomi Osaka may have withdrawn from the Wuhan Open with a viral illness but she remained the talk of the town here at the tournament as top players of the WTA heaped praise on the recently-crowned US Open champion.
Osaka impressed with both her game and composure in New York to lift her maiden Grand Slam title with victory over Serena Williams in the final.
She dropped a total of 28 games across her seven matches at the US Open, losing just one set to Aryna Sabalenka, and became the first-ever Japanese player win a Grand Slam singles title.
Osaka’s route to major glory is not your typical one. The 20-year-old had never won any title prior to this season, and when she was crowned for the first time, it was at the Premier Mandatory event at Indian Wells in March. She made sure her second success would be even bigger, as she stunned the field at the Open.
She broke serve a whopping 31 times throughout the fortnight in Queens, New York and won 91.5 per cent of her own service games (a 17.8% increase on her season average according to WTA Insider).
“She was extremely impressive,” Madison Keys, who lost to Osaka in the US Open semi-finals, told reporters in Wuhan this week.
“I remember playing her in the match thinking, ‘Okay, I hit a good ball, maybe something short is going to come back’, and it was not. Just I kept thinking like, ‘Okay, there will be a let-up, somewhere I’ll be able to get back in it’. I mean, even any of the break points that I had, I had no shot,” added Keys, who couldn’t convert any of her 13 break points against Osaka in New York.
“I walked away obviously very disappointed, but at the same time to play someone who was playing at that level, I was actually really happy to see her be able to handle the situation of the final so well because I think she deserved it. Then to come and make the final in Tokyo, it was really impressive, but also not surprising.”
After she won the US Open, Osaka was asked about her future goals. She quickly noted that her next tournament was Tokyo and that she hoped she could claim the title there. She fell just one match win short of doing just that.
Unlike others who may have needed some time to adjust to their status as new Grand Slam champions, Osaka kept her run going. She went to Tokyo a week after her success at the Open and extended her winning streak to 10 matches in a row by reaching the final at her home tournament. She ran out of gas at the end, losing in straight sets to Karolina Pliskova, and settled for the runner-up trophy.
She is the first maiden Slam champion to make the final of her next event since Victoria Azarenka won the Australian Open and Doha back-to-back in 2012.
World No. 1 Simona Halep is also not surprised by Osaka’s achievements. While Halep has two wins over Osaka this season (Australian Open fourth round, Rome second round), she only mustered three games against the young Japanese in the semi-finals of Indian Wells. She knows what an in-form Osaka is capable of.
“She was always able to do these things because she’s a very good player. Her mental is strong. Even if she’s young, she has many good things in her mind and also body. She has power. These days is really important,” said Halep of Osaka.
“I think she got the confidence after the great result that she’s done in US Open. Then she just went with the flow. But she deserves that because she worked really hard, and she was close many times. She won Indian Wells, so she was close. It’s good for her.”
Osaka’s dominant display in New York caught Caroline Garcia’s eye. It wasn’t just that Osaka was winning those matches, it’s how she was winning them, said the fourth-ranked Frenchwoman.
“It was a great performance for her, for all the tournament. Like, she killed everyone,” said Garcia.
“It was very impressive matches. Two sets, 2-2, 0-0, 1-1. Against Sabalenka was a fight. I didn’t really see her match and her performance on TV or anything, so I don’t know how she played, but I can only imagine.”
Garcia added: “It’s always funny to see her at the trophy ceremony. Most of the time I look like overexcited, over the moon. She’s like, ‘It’s okay’,” Garcia said with a laugh, mimicking Osaka’s nonchalant look.
“It’s her personality. She’s like this. I’m sure inside it was different. But she still carried on and played great tennis in Tokyo. I think if she’s doing what she’s doing, that’s means she worked hard for it and she deserves it, so it’s great.”
Osaka described her first victory speech when she won Indian Wells as the “worst acceptance speech ever”. It was actually very endearing. She is shy, funny and quirky, and has got more comfortable addressing large crowds which was evident in how gracious she was after winning the US Open – amid difficult circumstances – and how poised she was on all of the American talk shows she appeared on post-victory.
Osaka still maintains that she doesn’t have many friends on tour and that she finds it difficult to approach others, but the locker room is finally getting to learn more about her as her star shines bright.
“I don’t know her [Osaka] very well. I feel like I’m probably more outspoken and louder than she is,” Keys said with a laugh.
“I’m sure she probably hears me, she’s like, ‘Oh, God, I don’t want to talk to her’. I know her from afar. She seems very genuine and sweet and shy and all that.
“I think that she’s definitely made a name for herself. I think her whole personality is really interesting and nice. It’s kind of a breath of fresh air.”
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