SINGAPORE - The BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global organized an audience with the King - WTA Finals Legends Ambassador Billie Jean King, to be exact - ahead of Wednesday evening’s round robin matches. Winner of 39 Grand Slam titles across singles, women’s and mixed doubles, King was unqualified in her praise of 2018 US Open champion Naomi Osaka.
“I think she's got the head, heart, and guts together,” she said in the press conference. “Even with the Serena match, I knew she was going to win that match because she was playing better than Serena, and she was not going to let anything, nothing deter her from winning.
“I know it was tough, it was just crazy and chaotic, but in the end she prevailed, and I knew she prevailed because her head was in the right place. She stayed focused. And she's an amazing player.”
On the heels of a career-best season that included a title run at the BNP Paribas Open in addition to her maiden major win, Osaka qualified for her first WTA Finals appearance during the Asian Swing. The WTA founder went on to break down what makes the youngster so tough to beat.
“First of all, she hits a heavy ball. She can hit anything. If she really wants it, the sky's the limit. Beyond the sky. To the moon and back or the world. She's an amazing player already. What is she, 20? She's exceptional. I think Japan should be very proud of her. I know America is very proud of her. We are. She's both. I think that's great.”
Osaka’s impeccable serve - ranking sixth among ace leaders and averaging about 60% of points won behind first serves - is one shot King hopes the next generation continues to perfect.
“I don't think, as a little girl, when they are young, do they throw the ball enough like they do with the boys. That really helps. When they spend just as much time with their daughters playing catch, their serve is 10 times better.
“It’s why Serena has won so much. Her serve kept her in matches she wouldn't have won if she didn't have as good of a serve. That's why I want all the women to have really good serves, because that's how you start the point. The first two strikes of the ball are major.”
Seeded No.3 in Singapore, Osaka next plays rival Angelique Kerber after taking a narrow loss to Sloane Stephens, another WTA Finals debutante and US Open champion about whose potential King is more cautiously optimistic.
“When she's on, amazing. I think she's one of the best athletes we have ever had in the sport. She's like a gazelle around the court. She can hit anything, especially off the forehand she can hit so hard. She makes it feel effortless the way she plays, in a way.
“But does she want it? Is she emotionally and physically ready every day? I would say she's not yet. You want your head, your heart, and your guts all integrated.
"That's when you're playing your best. And I don't think she does that in a daily way enough yet. If she ever made up her mind to do that, whoa.”
Stephens takes on No.8 seed Kiki Bertens following Osaka-Kerber at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.