When it was over, Naomi Osaka did not jump for joy. She did not fall backward to the court or scream or make the arduous climb up into her player box.
Rather, Osaka nodded her head, smiled and walked to net as if she had done this a few times before.
For nearly two decades, Serena Williams has been the standard in women’s tennis.
She won the last three Grand Slams of 2002, then added the 2003 Australian Open and left her rivals far, far behind.
Her successor emerged Saturday night at Melbourne Park, when Osaka forcefully defeated Jennifer Brady 6-4, 6-3 in the Australian Open women’s final.
Holding it tight. Taking it all in 🥰🏆@naomiosaka | #AO2021 pic.twitter.com/KIriU7tayW— wta (@WTA) February 20, 2021
“She’s breaking away from the pack,” said 18-time major champion Chris Evert in her role as an ESPN analyst. “Something’s changing. Something is shifting now.
“It’s all about Naomi.”
Typically, Osaka did not dwell on her victory during a speech at the trophy presentation. She congratulated Brady and her team, and her team as well. She thanked the fans, who were absent at her previous major win.
“Just to have this energy, it really means a lot,” she said. “Thank you so much for coming. I feel like playing a Grand Slam right now is a super privilege. And it’s something that I won’t take for granted.”
Nor should the rest of us.
“I don’t think there is something that’s intangible about her,” Brady said of Osaka in her post-match interview. “She’s human, like the rest of us in this room. She’s just, you know, brings out her best in the big moments.
“She knows what she’s doing out there. She’s confident in herself, her game, her team."
Osaka is the first woman since Monica Seles in the early 1990s to win each of her first four Grand Slam final matches. She’s only the third player overall in more than a half century to that. The other one is Roger Federer.
“Well, my reaction is that that’s very amazing company,” Osaka said. “I hope that I can, have, like, one grain of how their career has unfolded. But, you can only wish and you can only just keep going down your own path. But, yeah, it's definitely something crazy to hear.”
So, what’s going to happen when she masters the complexities of clay, the subtleties of grass?
The second question of her post-match press conference cut immediately to the chase: What will the first non-hardcourt major be?
“Hopefully clay because it’s the one that’s sooner,” Osaka replied. “For me, I feel like I have to get comfortable on those surfaces. That’s the key thing that, you know, I didn’t play juniors, so I didn’t grow up playing on grass at all.
“So I honestly think I’d have better luck on clay, because I think last year I didn’t play bad at all. It’s just something that I have to get more used to.”
This 23-year-old from Japan has proved to be a quick study. In her dizzying run Down Under she’s already seen her offseason focus with coach Wim Fissette on a more dynamic return of serve and increased calculated aggression along the baseline bear fruit.
The next project in the coming months? While Osaka has been lights out on hardcourts, winning four of the past six majors played on that unforgiving surface, she has never been past the third round on the red clay of Roland Garros (6-4 overall) or the grass at Wimbledon (4-3).
“It was one of her goals this year to play well outside of the hardcourts,” Fissette explained before the final. “She’s still very young. It’s time to grow on those surfaces. She also believes she can do well, and I’m sure, with the right preparation, with few maybe tactical technical adjustments, we’re going to do well.”
The win against Brady was her 21st consecutive match win and largely devoid of drama. The only really queasy moments of the fortnight were in the fourth round when she saved two match points against Garbine Muguruza.
Osaka’s record on the backside of Grand Slams is an unflinching 4-0 in quarterfinals, 4-0 in semifinals and now, 4-0 in finals.
How far is Osaka ahead of the field?
She’s won four of the past nine Grand Slams, with the other five titles going to five different players. Incredibly, four of her seven WTA titles are Grand Slams. Osaka has moved swiftly into an exclusive neighborhood.
Mats Wilander, a seven-time major champion, predicted on Eurosport that Osaka would win at least 10 Grand Slams.
“She is very subdued when she wins, which means she wants to win more,” Wilander said. “I think the only question mark for her now is: Can she get comfortable on clay, and can she get comfortable on grass at Wimbledon?
“Because then there will be four majors she should be able to win. But at the moment she is the best hardcourt player we had in the women’s game since Serena Williams was at her best.”
Osaka becomes the 16th woman in the 53 years of the Open era to win four Grand Slam singles titles, and only the fourth active player. It’s worth noting that the other three are 39-year-old Serena Williams (23), 40-year-old Venus Williams (7) and Kim Clijsters (4), who is 37.
With her second title here, Osaka becomes the 12th woman to win multiple Australian Open titles. The win will raise her ranking to No. 2 on Monday, behind Ashleigh Barty.
“For me,” Osaka said before the final, “I have this mentality that people don’t remember the runners-up. You might, but the winner’s name is the one that’s engraved. I think I fight the hardest in the finals.
“I think that’s where you sort of set yourself apart.”
Fissette previously worked with four Grand Slam singles champions: Clijsters, Angelique Kerber, Simona Halep and Victoria Azarenka. Before the final he was asked what common traits these champions shared with Osaka.
“I think the most important common thing is that they love big matches and big moments, but especially Naomi,” Fissette said. “She was excited, like, yesterday before the [Serena] match. She was like when I bring my kids to the toy store, you know, they are very excited.
“A lot of times you feel the pressure, like you kind of maybe fear to lose. But her mindset is just looking at the positives, like this is exactly where I want to be. The best players always play their best tennis when they need to, like even in the match on breakpoints. And I think Naomi is very high there playing her best when she needs to.”
Brady’s journey Down Under began with a hard 24/7 quarantine. Despite limited practice and matches before the start of the Australian Open, seven women reached the third round. Brady was the only one to advance to the fourth round and ultimately reached her first Grand Slam final.
Osaka, however, was just too much.
One more number: Osaka is the fourth player of either gender since the Open era began in 1968 to win each of their first four major finals on the same surface. The most recent was the sturdy Spaniard, Rafael Nadal, who won titles in Paris from 2005-2008.
Ultimately, Rafa learned to play on the grass at Wimbledon, eclipsing Federer in a match for the ages in 2008. He also came to master the difficult venue in New York.
No one is saying Osaka will go on to win 20 Grand Slam singles titles, but clearly she has the goods to remain a force in women’s tennis. You get the idea that with her tenacity, commitment and belief, Osaka soon will get a grip on clay and grass.
“Another GS title,” Brady said during the trophy presentation. “She’s such an inspiration to us all.”
And then she congratulated Osaka’s team.
“Obviously, you guys are doing something special,” Brady said. “She’s only getting better.”