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Naomi Osaka, the Most Thrilling Athlete of Her Generation, Wins the Australian Open

I was courtside three years ago at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden when Naomi Osaka won her first tour-level women’s championship. I was there with my sons, who are just a few years older than Osaka—she was twenty at the time—and I tried, in my boomer-dad way, as the stadium court was readied for the awards presentation, to describe what Osaka might say, what she might be like, when she spoke. I’d been attending her post-match press conferences for a week. She might, I told them, get a little goofy—a little gnomic, even. It was clear, soon enough, that I hadn’t been getting it. She clutched her trophy awkwardly and laughed, and turned her back to the microphone once or twice. “This is probably going to be, like, the worst acceptance speech of all time,” she said. My sons were captivated. Totally. Which is to say that it was all there, already, on that March afternoon in the California desert: not only the ferocious power tennis that would earn her major trophies, but the oxymoronic admixtures of fretful calm and confident self-deprecation that are hallmarks of the sensibility of a generation. There was a rub between her on-court tenacity and her singular off-court persona—and the spark it created is what can be called aura.

That aura stands only to be enhanced by her victory, on Saturday, in the Australian Open final, even though the match was something of a letdown. Osaka prevailed over—a phrase that will get used often enough to describe Osaka’s matches in the coming years—the American Jennifer Brady, 6–4, 6–3, much as she prevailed over Serena Williams in their semifinal match on Thursday, and much as she prevailed over Brady more than five months ago, at the U.S. Open. That latter match was three sets of breathtaking, clean-hitting, baseline tennis: perhaps the best match of 2020. Saturday’s match in Melbourne was scratchier. Both Brady and Osaka have serves that can earn them free points, aces or service winners or shanked returns, when their first serves are hitting their spots. On Saturday, they weren’t putting first serves in even half the time, and they weren’t hitting their spots all that often when they did. Each player had her share of wincing unforced errors. Nerves? A stiff breeze inside Rod Laver Arena? It was hard to tell.

What was obvious, from the start, was that Osaka, with nearly every serve or return or groundstroke she hit, was trying to find Brady’s backhand. Brady’s development as a top women’s player has been, by today’s standards, somewhat slow; she was not an especially standout junior, she spent two years at U.C.L.A. before turning pro, she was almost nowhere in singles tennis as recently as 2018. But she always had a commanding forehand, topspin-laden and explosive, and, after working in the small Bavarian city of Regensburg six days a week with the German coach Michael Geserer, she emerged, last year, at the age of twenty-five, with the fitness and tactical know-how to construct a game around that forehand—potentially a top-ten game. She is not, however, or not yet, in possession of a top-ten backhand. It continues to take her too much time to set that shot up, especially against a player who crowds the baseline and takes the ball early to rob her of time. That was Osaka on Saturday in the final. One Brady backhand after another flew wide, flew long, or quailed over the net and fell short mid-court, where Osaka could surround the ball with her forehand and swat it, acutely angled, out of reach.

Brady nevertheless would not go away in the first set. After having been broken on a double fault, she broke back immediately. She went up 40–15 to stay on serve and even the match at 5–5. Then it all fell apart so fast, as it can in tennis: a third-shot error; another double fault, to level the game at deuce; a forehand long; and a short sitter unforgivably thrashed into the net, and she’d lost the set. Osaka raced to a 4–0 lead in the second set, and that was more or less that. The crowd, filling the seats at a socially distanced fifty-per-cent capacity, rose and roared for Osaka at the match’s end—and how thrilling it was, even for us faraway TV watchers, to have those fans back! Osaka gently raised her racquet above her head in victory, and that beatific smile spread across her face.

She was introduced on the ceremonial platform, moments afterward, as a young athlete who’d become a global celebrity working to change the world, and change what it means to be a young athlete, through her campaigning for racial and social justice. She was putting that aura of hers to use. (She has also become the highest-paid female athlete ever, according to Forbes.) She held the trophy more comfortably than she did three years ago, at Indian Wells, which is no surprise. She has now won four majors, in the first four major finals she’s reached—no women’s player has won the first four Grand Slam finals she’s reached since Monica Seles did it thirty years ago. Osaka has encountered setbacks along the way, to be sure; at last year’s Australian Open, she was knocked out in the third round, in straight sets, by Coco Gauff. If anything, her losses, and her Zen-like approach of quietly acknowledging them and moving on, have only served to deepen the vibe she has with fans, millions of whom follow her on social media. And she was laughing again, endearingly, as she accepted her Australian Open trophy. Turning to Brady, behind her on the platform, to congratulate her, she said, in the softly earnest ha-ha way she has, “I told everyone that would listen that you’re gonna be a problem, and I was right.”

Watching her, a thought came to me that I could not have imagined forming three years ago. Is there any athlete under twenty-five, male or female, in any sport, with the champion’s game and the pop allure that Osaka has? I can’t think of one.

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