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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 6 March 2021

Naomi Osaka hitting new highs after latest Australian Open triumph

Japanese star becomes only the third player in the Open Era – behind Seles and Federer – to win her first four Grand Slam finals

Only Naomi Osaka would start a victory speech by asking the opponent she just defeated in a Grand Slam final whether she preferred being called by her name or her nickname.

“Do you like to be called ‘Jenny’ or ‘Jennifer?’,” Osaka asked Jennifer Brady after she took down the American to win a second Australian Open and a fourth major title on Saturday.

Osaka misheard Brady, and went on to congratulate ‘Jennifer’ for her great campaign at Melbourne Park this fortnight.

“We played in the semis of the US Open a couple of months ago and I told anyone that would listen that you were going to be a problem and I was right,” the Japanese-Haitian superstar added with a chuckle, giving props to Brady in her own unique and quirky sense of humour.

The 23-year-old eased through the rest of her speech, thanking everyone that needed to be thanked, especially the Australian fans in the stands that showed up for the tournament despite the controversy it created and the mixed reaction it received from the Melbournian public.

“Thank you for opening your hearts and your arms towards us,” Osaka gracefully signed off.

The speech was a stark contrast to the one she gave three years ago when she lifted her maiden WTA title at Indian Wells in March 2018. Back then, a teenaged Osaka was crippled by her shyness and could barely string two sentences together.

She has grown leaps and bounds since then in every possible way – be it her public-speaking skills, her on-court prowess, her self-confidence, her global popularity, and perhaps most importantly, her mental strength and overall maturity.

‘Growth’ is the first word that comes to mind when witnessing the current 21-match winning streak she has amassed, or observing the on-court decisions she is making while down break points in a contest, or listening to her responses to tough questions in press conferences, or seeing her make bold statements against racial injustice.

Osaka is going through that journey with the eyes of the public firmly fixed on her; yet she’s able to do it all with such poise, while also staying true to her most authentic self.

“Over the years I have just realised, like, the only thing I can do is be myself,” she said in Melbourne.

When Osaka became Asia’s first-ever world No 1 two years ago, she piled the pressure on herself. She got the sense that people were not really acknowledging her as the world No 1 and she felt like she had something to prove, like it was “me against the world”.

“That wasn't really a good mindset to have,” she later admitted.

A shock loss to Coco Gauff that ended her title defence at the 2020 Australian Open followed by a hefty defeat in Fed Cup a couple of weeks later proved to be a wake-up call for Osaka. It’s been 12 months and she hasn’t lost a match since!

“It really made me think a lot about my life and what is the reason – like am I playing tennis to prove stuff to other people or am I playing to have fun because I enjoy it? From there I just took that attitude and tried to move forward with it,” she said last week.

Osaka, the highest-paid woman athlete on the planet, now operates on a different level. There is great conviction in everything she does and a great understanding of what she wishes to achieve both on and off the court.

“The biggest thing I've improved is my mentality. This is something I've been able to level up over the years. I feel like I understand myself more and I understand the position that I put myself in,” she explains.

Osaka has also shown that embracing one’s own vulnerability can be a superpower. Athletes often demand a ridiculous level of strength and resolve from themselves but Osaka has found that letting go of that notion is even more empowering.

“I think what I have learned on and off the court is, it's okay to not be sure about yourself. I feel like I've always forced myself to be strong or whatever. I think if you're not feeling okay, it's okay to not feel okay. But you have to go within yourself and figure things out in a way,” she said on Saturday.

In a sport that can be notoriously selfish, Osaka has found the biggest motivation in thinking about others. She is extremely ambitious, and publicly declares her desire to make history, but she has also spoken about finding her true “purpose” in life; how she’s keen to use her platform to make a positive impact on society, and how she seeks success to benefit those around her.

Last month, Osaka invested in the women’s soccer team, North Carolina Courage. She was inspired by the founder of women’s tennis Billie Jean King (who texts her sometimes) and Serena Williams, whose daughter and husband are also part owners of an NSWL club.

“I think for me it's more of a unity thing,” said Osaka, the latest star to emphasise the importance of women supporting women.

Osaka’s Australian Open triumph this fortnight means she has now won all 12 Grand Slam quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals she has contested so far in her young career. A big-match player at her core, Osaka is just the third player in the Open Era – behind Monica Seles and Roger Federer – to win her first four major finals. She owns seven titles overall; more than half of them are Slams.

When asked about the biggest thing she wishes to achieve, on or off the court, Osaka doesn’t mention a title or a record.

“This is going to sound really odd, but hopefully I play long enough to play a girl that said that I was once her favourite player or something,” she said. “I think that's the coolest thing that could ever happen to me. I think I have those feelings of, you know, watching my favourite players. Unfortunately I didn't get to play Li Na, but, yeah, I just think that that's how the sport moves forward.”

Osaka might get that match-up against her biggest fan sooner than she thinks.

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Gallery: Osaka beats Brady at Australian Open

Updated: February 20, 2021 08:14 PM

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