The 21-year-old and rising talent enjoyed a career-changing season in 2018
By Chris Lewis
During the 1999 French Open, Leonard Francois witnessed the raw, natural talents of the Williams sisters firsthand—and decided right then and there that he would teach his two daughters, Mari and Naomi Osaka, how to play tennis in much the same way that Richard Williams had taught his daughters. After all Leonard, like Richard, was not a professional tennis player. But they both had two gifted daughters who would prove they had the “it factor” necessary to compete on the professional circuit.
Of the two Osaka sisters, Naomi has had the most success so far, as proven by her breakthrough 2018 season in which she won the prestigious BNP Paribas Open prior to earning her first Grand Slam victory at the U.S. Open. Naomi’s stunning season wasn’t overly surprising to those following her career closely. Since turning pro shortly before her 16th birthday, she has steadily worked her way to the top.
In 2014, Naomi qualified for her first WTA main draw at the Stanford Classic and defeated former U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur. Within a few months, she entered the top 250 of the WTA rankings and her rise continued from there. She eventually reached the top 100, and by 2016 was among the top 50 in the WTA rankings, the same year in which she was named WTA Newcomer of the Year.
Her progress stalled a bit in 2017, as her ranking didn’t rise above No. 44, yet it also didn’t decline lower than No. 68. But when she didn’t claim more than two main-draw match victories in 2017, Naomi decided to hire a new coach in the offseason: Sascha Bajin. That decision was arguably the best of her career thus far.
The Breakthrough Begins at Indian Wells
After reaching the fourth round of the Australian Open, her best result at a Grand Slam at that point in time, she eventually lost to world No. 1 Simona Halep. She returned to the top 50 of the WTA rankings and decided to compete in the 2018 BNP Paribas Open in March. Regarded as the most significant event in tennis aside from the Gland Slams, the BNP Paribas Open is not only a must-see tournament for tennis fans but also a necessary event for professionals to compete in. It helps them prepare for the rest of the season, gain momentum for the remaining Grand Slams and measure themselves against the circuit’s best players.
Prior to competing in the BNP Paribas Open, Naomi had never won a professional title. She hadn’t even played past the third round at a Premier Mandatory Event. The only driving forces she had for potential success were her natural talent, the top-50 ranking, support from Bajin as well as family and friends, and belief in herself.
These driving forces appeared to be more than enough. She ultimately won the championship overwhelmingly, defeating opponents including Karolína Plíšková and Simona Halep before competing against Daria Kasatkina. With a 6-3, 6-2 victory in the finals, Naomi became the youngest winner of the BNP Paribas Open in a decade, as well as the first female Japanese winner in tournament history. The victory also substantially improved her world rankings, taking her up to No. 22, a career high.
“I’ve never won a title before. It feels new,” she stated afterward. “I’m really happy about this and grateful for the experience.”
The Momentum Continues at the U.S. Open
There was no doubt about it. The player who used to hit 100-mile-per-hour forehands when she was 16 was finally reaching her potential. She can now serve up to 125 miles per hour, among the ten fastest in WTA history, and just six months after becoming the first female Japanese champion at the BNP Paribas Open, she became the first Japanese woman to compete in the final of a Grand Slam.
It seemed like everything came full circle during the final of the U.S. Open as Naomi faced off against one of her role models, Serena Williams. Without Serena and the influence her father’s coaching guidance had on Leonard Francois, Naomi may have never become a professional tennis player.
When all was said and done, Naomi did not appear to be a first-time participant in a Grand Slam final. Rather, she played like a seasoned veteran, dominating her role model throughout the match—winning 73 percent of her points on first serve, committing only 14 unforced errors and out-acing Serena six to three as she claimed a 6-2, 6-4 victory.
Her potential, first envisioned by her father when she was just a little girl, has certainly come to fruition now. With a Grand Slam triumph, a BNP Paribas Open title and considerable prize money—$6,394,289, the most on the WTA Tour in 2018—under her belt, Naomi believes the best is yet to come.
“I don’t expect myself to just win one Grand Slam. The more confidence I put in myself, the more I play better,” she says. “If I believe in myself, a lot of good things will happen.”
Chris Lewis is a staff writer with Desert Golf & Tennis