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Naomi Osaka shows you don’t have to talk the talk to walk the walk
With her stubborn, self-effacing title run in Australia, Naomi Osaka showed that humility can be an effective part of a champion’s game plan.
Published Jan 26, 2019
“I mean, we’ve never played before. I think to have the opportunity to play her for the first time in a final of a Grand Slam is something very amazing.”
That’s what Naomi Osaka said when she was asked about the prospect of facing Petra Kvitova in the Australian Open final. And that’s pretty much what she said again, after she had beaten Kvitova 7-6 (2), 5-7, 6-4 to win her second straight major title.
“I’m really honored to have played you in the final of a Grand Slam,” Osaka said, turning to a tearful Kvitova during the trophy ceremony.
Did those words remind you of any other words you had heard from an athlete recently? They weren’t all that different from what Osaka had said at the US Open last year, when she talked about the prospect of playing her idol, Serena Williams. Osaka said then that she was motivated to get to the final in part so she could face Serena, and when she was asked if she had any message for the American champion before the match, she laughed and said, “I love you.” In Australia, Osaka may not have felt quite so strongly about Kvitova, but she was still excited to play a woman whom she had watched so often on TV as a kid.
“The arrogance of a champion” is a phrase we hear a lot. It’s assumed that to be the best at something, you have to blindly believe in your own superiority. As for tennis players, we often hear that they “need to be selfish” to thrive in a sport where everything revolves around the needs of the individual. At the US Open and now the Australian Open, Osaka has shown that another way is possible. She has won with humility.
Osaka, who was born in Japan, bows after her matches. She bowed to Kvitova at the net on Saturday, and she bowed to everyone who surrounded her during the trophy ceremony afterward. She’s the rare player who picks up her own plastic bags and water bottles on court and puts them in the trash, rather than having a ball kid do it for her. She’s the even rarer player, or person, who will say something as awkwardly, comically honest as this in a US Open press conference: “Oh my God, I really only have, like, one friend that I’m actually completely, like, myself, with...I feel bad for her sometimes.”
Osaka’s Millennial-style self-deprecation has made her a darling of the media, and it should soon make her a darling of sports fans—her easy, shy smile is appealing and refreshing. But her humility is also something more: It’s effective as a strategy and a mindset.
At Flushing Meadows, Osaka’s professions of love for Serena helped defuse any animosity that the legend may have had for an upstart who was outplaying her on the sport’s biggest stage. And in Melbourne, instead of seeing Kvitova as someone she needed to pulverize, Osaka saw her match with the two-time Wimbledon winner as a moment to celebrate and savor.
You might think a person as understated as Osaka would wilt in the spotlight. But staying grounded and keeping her expectations in check seems to help her embrace the most pressure-packed moments. Instead of believing she should dominate every match, she believes she needs to play her best just to keep up with her more experienced and, until now, more famous opponents.
“For me, this entire match more than anything, it felt like we were equal,” Osaka said after edging Kvitova’s countrywoman, Karolina Pliskova, in the semifinals. “But I felt like for me, there are certain things she’s better than me at, right? I felt like I have to keep pumping myself up. Every time there’s an opportunity, or something doesn’t go my way, I had to keep being very positive.”
Of course, no one, not even Osaka, can win two straight majors and become No. 1 at age 21 with a humble attitude alone. Her unassuming veneer masks a deep, innate, stubborn competitiveness. Like Serena, Osaka was first drawn to the court by the desire not just to do what her older sister was doing, but to do it better.
“I don’t remember liking to hit the ball,” Osaka told The New York Times last summer. “The main thing was, I wanted to beat my sister. For her, it wasn’t a competition, but for me, every day was a competition. Every day, I’d say, ‘I’m going to beat you tomorrow.”
Osaka’s stubborn competitiveness has never been on greater display than it was during this fortnight. She came back from 5-7, 1-4 down to beat Su-Wei Hsieh; she came from a set down to sneak past Anastasija Sevastova; she outplayed her “equal,” Pliskova, down the stretch. And against Kvitova, Osaka squandered three match points in the second set and was on the verge of a meltdown at the start of the third, but won anyway. Again and again at this tournament, instead of unraveling, Osaka gathered herself.
“I just thought to myself that this is my second time playing a final,” Osaka said when she was asked how she “righted” herself after the second set. “I can’t really act entitled. To be playing against one of the best players in the world, to lose a set, suddenly to think that I’m so much better than her.”
“You know how some people get worked up about things? That’s a very human thing to do. Sometimes, I don’t know, I feel like I don’t want to waste my energy doing stuff like that...In the third set of my match today, I literally just tried to turn off all my feelings.”
In the end, what separated Osaka from the rest of the pack in Australia was less her attitude than it was her shots. Even against Kvitova, one of the game’s biggest hitters, Osaka was in control from the baseline. And even when she lost the second set and nearly lost her mind, she went right back to controlling those rallies in the third set. Her serve, her ground strokes, her power and speed: No one could match her on those fronts. And that’s why she’s a deserving No. 1.
Osaka shows that to be a champion, you don’t have to talk the talk, you just have to walk the walk.
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