MELBOURNE—Never is the solitude and zero-sum aspect of tennis more stark and painful than in the hours after the end of a Grand Slam singles final.
Two weeks ago, 128 women had arrived at Melbourne Park, each with hopes that this evening she would be the one accepting the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup from 2014 Australian Open champion Li Na.
Just past 10:00 P.M. on this temperate Saturday night, Naomi Osaka blistered an unreturnable 114-M.P.H. serve down the T in the deuce court versus Petra Kvitova to win her second Grand Slam singles title and claim the No. 1 ranking.
It was downright austere: one singular winner, 127 scattered losers, Kvitova the one at the head of the line.
Said Kvitova, “Yeah, it’s painful, for sure. I don’t know how long will take me to get over it…I was pretty close, but pretty far.”
Osaka admitted she was in tears after losing the second set. But then, as she had throughout the entire tournament (four three-set victories), Osaka regrouped.
Past midnight, at her post-match press conference, Osaka said, “I just felt kind of hollow, like I was a robot sort of. I was just executing my orders. I don't know. Like, I just did what I've been practicing my whole life in a way.”
Still in her tennis outfit, cocooned under her trademark visor, Osaka walked through Melbourne Park. Surrounded by a phalanx of security guards—tennis, evocative of the wake of a heavyweight title bout—she carried the trophy by herself and made the rounds of TV studios. To think that 12 months ago, Osaka was ranked 72 in the world.
The Osaka victory at the US Open had been an amazing triumph. But that day’s craziness also made it bizarrely communal, the whole world engrossed in what had happened while also protecting Osaka. In Melbourne, though, Osaka wasn’t a young champion people wanted to look out for. From this evening on, more of the world would want an even bigger piece of her.
What had started in New York was consolidated in Melbourne. No longer would Osaka merely be an athlete. She was a corporation, someone a great many others could profit from. That would create a different flavor of solitude. There would be even more sponsors and handlers, private jets and hotel suites, producers, writers, fans. Who could you trust?
But when it came to her tennis, Osaka knew exactly who to trust: herself.
Asked what she’d spoken about prior to the match with her coach, Sascha Bajin, Osaka said, “We haven’t really been talking, to be honest, like before any of my matches here. He would tell me, like, one thing, then I would be, like, OK. That was it.”
Meanwhile, Kvitova. Two years ago, in the wake of her hand being viciously stabbed, Kvitova’s career hung in the balance. At the 2018 Australian Open, she’d lost in the first round. Now, she’d come within a set of a third Grand Slam singles title and being No. 1. But Kvitova also knew too that she had more in common with the other 126 than she did with Osaka. No trophy; just the runner-up plate, held on the lap of a tournament official.
Said Kvitova, “You know how the women’s tennis is. Everybody can just beat anyone, which it’s good and it’s bad on the other side. That’s the tennis. It’s a beautiful sport.”
It was now getting close to 1:00 A.M. In front of a packed media room, the precious trophy to her right, a tired Osaka was asked if all the achievements of recent times made her feel grown up.
“Sometimes I do,” she said. “But I'm not sure if it's feeling grown up or being able to dissociate my feelings. I don't know if that makes sense. Like, you know how some people get worked up about things? That's a very human thing to do. Sometimes, I don't know, like I feel like I don't want to waste my energy doing stuff like that. I think about this on the court, too. Like in the third set of my match today, I literally just tried to turn off all my feelings. So that's why I wasn't yelling as much in the third set. I'm not sure if that makes me grown up. I don't think so.”
Quintessential Osaka: an introvert, thinking aloud. The way this new world No. 1 takes people into her own mind will generate intrigue for years to come.
“If one’s different, one’s bound to be lonely,” wrote the author Aldous Huxley. The book’s title is fitting for Osaka: “Brave New World.”
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