Naomi Osaka, who swept to her fourth Grand Slam title in as many major finals with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over Jennifer Brady on Saturday, has made a rapid and at times uncomfortable climb to the top.
The 23-year-old’s zen-like mentality and increased gravitas on and off the court have elevated her alongside Serena Williams to being one of the most recognisable female athletes on the planet.
But it is her unceasing politeness away from the battlefield, coupled with the on-court steel that runs through all champions, that makes her stand apart.
“Do you like to be called Jenny or Jennifer?” she almost timidly asked Brady before embarking on her winner’s speech on Saturday.
It was typical of Osaka, who also gave a deferential bow to Williams after knocking out her idol and 23-time Grand Slam champion in the semi-final.
Osaka will rise to number two in the world when the new rankings are released next week after a polished campaign which will reinforce the belief that she has taken over as the new queen of tennis.
It’s a far cry from a year ago when a rattled Osaka felt the strain of expectations as her Australian Open title defense fell apart with a shock loss to a 15-year-old Coco Gauff in the third round.
“She looked very nervous to me, she was under pressure, and she only looked like that because she was not expressing her feelings,” her coach Wim Fissette said.
Weeks later, Osaka was embarrassed as she won just three games against Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo in a Fed Cup tie.
“There’s just a lot of stuff that happened there, surrounding that time, that it really made me think a lot about my life,” she said.
“What is the reason, I am playing tennis to prove stuff to other people or am I playing to have fun because I enjoy it.”
But things turned during the pandemic when Osaka gained a new perspective and became a vocal leader in the fight against racial injustice in the United States.
Her increased presence as a campaigner for social justice has fuelled Osaka on court and she now possesses a 21-match unbeaten streak after Saturday’s final, a run that included winning last year’s US Open title for the second time.
This handout photo released by Tennis Australia on February 20, 2021, shows Japan’s Naomi Osaka (L) holds the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup trophy beside runner-up Jennifer Brady of the US after their women’s singles final match on day thirteen of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne. AFP