Is Naomi Osaka becoming the game’s dominant force at the Grand Slams? It’s beginning to look that way. The 21-year-old from Japan extended her winning streak at major tournaments to 13 matches with her impressive three-set victory over Karolina Pliskova in the Australian Open semifinals, and by reaching her second straight Grand Slam final, she has linked herself with some impressive names.
The reigning US Open champion was already the first first-time major winner to advance to the semis of her very next Slam since Kim Clijsters 13 years earlier. Now, she’s the first since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to go all the way to the final at her next Slam. Should she win, she would be the first player since the great Serena Williams four years ago to win consecutive major titles.
Given how many maiden major winners in the women’s game have struggled to back up their breakthrough performances at the following Grand Slam event, Osaka’s run at Melbourne Park this fortnight has been instructive.
“You guys know that I love Grand Slams,” she told the media on Thursday evening after her 6-2 4-6 6-4 win over Pliskova.
“This is, like, a place where I think is worth all the training. When you’re little, you watch the Grand Slams, you watch all the players play, the legendary matches here.
“For me, this is the most important tournament. There’s only four of them a year, so of course I want to do the best that I can here.”
Unlike in New York, where she crushed the field and dropped just one set en route to the biggest trophy of her career, Osaka has been forced to battle in Melbourne.
She looked almost certainly beaten when she trailed Hsieh Su-Wei 7-5, 4-2, 40-0 in the third round, and she had trouble shaking Anastasija Sevastova in the last 16, eventually winning 6-4 in the third.
Those matches were scrappy affairs, which Osaka has sometimes struggled to embrace. She admitted in both Beijing a few months ago, and Brisbane two weeks ago, that she was unhappy with her attitude in similar matches.
She has significantly improved in that area at the Australian Open.
“What I take away from this is that I never gave up, and that’s something that I’m really proud of myself for,” she declared.
“There are moments in the match where I thought, like, ‘This is getting really close’. I just thought I wouldn’t forgive myself if I had, like, a little dip or a moment of accepting defeat.
“For me, at this tournament, I wasn’t really focused on winning. I just wanted to make sure I tried 100 per cent on every point. I’m still here, so thankfully that’s working out.”
It’s this mentality which will help her in one of the biggest matches of her life come Saturday night.
There she will meet Petra Kvitova, a player whom she has never faced, and who has never lost a Grand Slam final. Not only that, but the world No.1 ranking is on the line as well.
With so much at stake, Osaka recognises the need to keep her thinking uncluttered, and her approach unchanged.
“My main goal is winning this tournament. I think the ranking comes after that. I tend to do better if I focus on one goal,” she said.
“Of course (No.1) is a very big deal for me. It’s one of the biggest goals that I had I guess playing the quarters, then hearing that it’s possible.
“It’s a little bit unreal. At the same time I realise the work that I put in during the off-season. Every match that I played, I tried my best. It just felt like it was a continuous effort.
“It’s sort of the reality I am in right now, so I can only keep going forward from here.”