In her exclusive WTA column, Martina Navratilova discusses the shift in Naomi Osaka's mindset that lead to her Indian Wells victory - and why she's likely to win a Slam.
Martina Navratilova
March 23, 2018

Just like her idol Serena Williams before her, Naomi Osaka has figured out how to tame her own game.

You can compare the two as this is kind of similar to the change that a young Williams once went through; the American always had power in her game, and learned how to control it. And now Osaka, who has also always had a lot of power, has herself worked out how to play smarter tennis.

Osaka's looking for the proper spots or opportunities to go for her shots. The result is she's cut out the unforced errors which used to come from going for too much too soon. That shift in approach is probably worth 10 to 15 points every match, and that alone would have been the difference between winning and losing on her run in Indian Wells, where the 20-year-old took her first WTA title on Sunday.

Read more: Champions Corner: Naomi Osaka dominates the California desert

One sign of a champion-in-making is how they react after a big win. Well, Osaka sure came through with flying colours on that front when, having drawn Williams in the first round in Miami, she kept right on form from Indian Wells, beating her idol in dominating fashion, 6-3, 6-2.

In California, and also in Florida, Osaka has been hitting as many winners as she was before, it's just that she has stopped making so many unnecessary mistakes. And now she's likely to just keep on getting better. Once you feel and see how much more effective you are when you control your power a little bit, you embrace that process and concentrate even more on not missing.

There's no doubt that Osaka has the potential to win a Grand Slam. She's just won a tournament that everyone was playing. If you can do that, you're going to believe you can also succeed on an even bigger stage.

But Serena didn’t have to wait long to conquer in South Florida, defeating Jennifer Capriati to win in 2002. The pair repeated in next year’s final, with Serena winning again, before she won a third straight title in 2004. (Getty Images)
Serena Williams first lifted the Indian Wells trophy in 2002.

I've been following Osaka for a couple of years. For some time, I've seen her talent and potential, but I just didn't how she was going to evolve. This has all happened pretty quickly for the Japanese player, but when you're young you can make improvements in big chunks.

When you have proper coaching - and she's clearly getting that from Sascha Bajin - then your progress can be fast. She's getting the right advice, and she's listening and she's not afraid to try new things. A lot of people are afraid of change, and need a lot of convincing over a long period to try a new approach, but she's embracing it. Osaka has trusted her coach and it's paid off pretty quickly.

To build on Indian Wells and give herself the best chance of future success, Osaka needs to bring a great intensity and work ethic to every practice session. If Naomi can take that same approach into competition, then she will realise she can do it in any match. If you treat all matches as if they're equally important, you then don't go into overdrive when you're playing the majors. You won't go, 'Oh my god, I'm playing at the French Open' and think to yourself that it counts for so much more. You've already given it everything at the smaller events and therefore it is not such a big step-up when you're playing the majors.

Read more: Martina Navratilova: Sharapova needs one great tournament

Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka shake hands (Getty)
Osaka defeated Serena in the opening round of the Miami Open. (Getty Images)

You're always going to have fluctuations in whatever your level of play is. But when you're practising with intensity, those fluctuations will be smaller from tournament to tournament, from match to match , and also from, say, the second round to the final. With these smaller fluctuations, you will cut out more bad losses because when you're playing a long way below your best, it's not going to be as bad as before. And maybe you sneak through matches - instead of losing in three sets, you win in three. And then as the tournament goes on, you're playing better.

That's an approach that carries through to the majors. At the majors, there's more chance of having a bad day as you have to play seven matches to win the title, and that's why it's even more important to have the confidence and belief that you can get through when you're not playing your best. It's all about building blocks that make a difference at the end to possibly succeed at the highest level without losing your cool or panicking when you are having a really bad day.

On a separate issue, a decade after women got equal pay on court at the Grand Slams, we still haven't got it in the television booth. This week on the BBC, I spoke about how the corporation paid John McEnroe 10 times more in total than they paid me during last year's Wimbledon and about three to four times more if you pro-rate the events we worked.

Since my interview was broadcast in the UK, I've had a lot of support from other women's broadcasters, sportscasters and journalists. They're all saying that same thing - that they're paid less than their male counterparts of comparable heft and credentials. As I said on the broadcast, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. It's not a fight between me and John; it's just about shining a light on the disparity that is still prevalent. John and I are different kinds of analysts. But I think we're at a comparable level and I don't think the pay is comparable. Something isn't right.