Naomi Osaka and Andrey Rublev have more in common than you might think at first. Both are 23, and were born within four days of each other, in October 1997. Both are exemplars of the modern, kill-or-be-killed power game, and have never met a tennis ball they couldn’t pummel within an inch of its life. Their lack of ego and penchant for honesty has made them both fan favorites. And as they get set to start their campaigns at the Miami Open this week, they both have something to prove.

It’s what Osaka and Rublev have to prove that separates them at the moment.

Over the past year, Rublev has established himself as the king of the 500. Hamburg, St. Petersburg, Vienna, Rotterdam: He won them all, until Aslan Karatsev finally snapped his 500-level win streak at 23 in Dubai. As the tournaments get bigger through the spring and summer, most fans will ask: Can Rublev take the next step and do it at the majors? And that will be a legitimate question. What’s strange about his career so far is that while he has had respectable results at the Grand Slam level—he has reached the quarterfinals of the last three—he hasn’t made many inroads at Masters 1000s. Rublev has never reached the final of one, and while he has burned up the 500 circuit since the pandemic, he’s just 2-3 at 1000s.

Rublev didn’t sound worried when the topic was brought up to him this week.

“We’ll see. I think I have enough level to go deep into the 1000s,” he said. “Grand Slams already I did—last three Grand Slams I did quarterfinals, so I went deep there. I need to keep working, to give my best. Now here is going to be great challenge for me to see how I can play, how I can compete again.”

“Like I said many times, to improve, there is still so many things. I think it's great that I still have so many things to improve, to be a better player, knowing that I'm already playing good.”

Advertising

What Osaka and Rublev have to prove is what separates them in Miami

What Osaka and Rublev have to prove is what separates them in Miami

Getty Images

To Rublev, taking the next step is less about learning to beat higher-ranked opponents or succeed on bigger stages, and more about learning to play a more complete game—to incorporate slice, touch, volleys, angles, and changes of pace. To do more, in other words, than pummel every ball within an inch of its life. At the last thee majors, he was beaten by Daniil Medvedev twice and Stefanos Tsitsipas once. Those guys have a little more variety to their games than Rublev does, which allows them to be a little more flexible and surprising with their tactics.

Rublev rightly sees Miami as offering an opportunity for him. First, the field is missing Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Dominic Thiem. Second, Rublev will have a rare opportunity to be a Top 4 seed at a tournament this big, which means his draw to the semis will look much like a draw he might face at a 500. The first seed Rublev could play is Marton Fucsovics, and the second-highest seed in his quarter is Diego Schwartzman. And as far as ranking points go, he can only gain them at the 1000s this year. As he puts it, “I don’t need to defend nothing.”

“To get extra points and to go higher in position, I need to play big events,” Rublev said. “Now here without top players, of course I have better chances to win maybe one extra match, or, I don’t know. Of course, I can still lose second round because everyone can play good.

“But I have my other things why I’m coming here. I want to be a better player, I want to improve my ranking. Now on the Masters, I don’t need to defend nothing. I can only earn. I didn’t do well here last year. So that’s why.”

The question surrounding Rublev—can he win the big ones?—is one that many young players have faced before. The question surrounding Osaka this week is more unusual. What we want to know is: Can she win the small ones? Or, in the case of Miami, the not-quite-as-big ones?

So far four of Osaka’s seven career titles have come at majors, and she hasn’t won a non-Slam event since 2019. In part that’s due to the pandemic, which kept her out for most of 2020, and the fact that so far she has mostly excelled on hard courts. She has won important tour events in Indian Wells and Bejing in the past, and she hasn’t officially lost a match in more than a year. But in general, Osaka has followed in her idol Serena Williams’ footsteps and saved her best for the majors. From the quarterfinals on at the Slams, she’s 12-0.

What Osaka and Rublev have to prove is what separates them in Miami

What Osaka and Rublev have to prove is what separates them in Miami

Advertising

Getty Images

According to Osaka, she doesn’t have an “only the majors matter” attitude. She says she doesn’t want to be someone who is “randomly popping up and winning a Slam,” and that she “wants to do well in all of the tournaments that I play.”

“That’s my goal is to be consistent this year,” she said last month, “not to have a huge drop-off randomly in the middle section like June, July, you know, how I usually do.”

Miami would seem to be a natural place for her add another non-Slam title to her résumé. She grew up not too far away in Pembroke Pines, and has good memories of playing on the public courts there. “I get to see my mom and dad [this week], so there’s that,” she said. She says her lack of success in Miami in the past makes her feel eager rather than daunted.

“I actually don't feel any pressure,” Osaka said. “It’s not like I’m defending here. I’ve never even made second week here before. I feel more fun, like excitement. I want to see how well I can do.”

For most players, including Rublev, the challenge is to bear up under the pressure of a big stage. For Osaka, the challenge seems to be to find the motivation to win when the stage is ever-so-slightly smaller, and the stakes ever-so-slightly reduced. In Australia, when she went down double match point to Garbiñe Muguruza in the fourth round, Osaka raised her game to its highest pitch. Will she feel that kind of pressure, and react to it in that way, if she falls behind in Miami?

For Rublev and the rest of Osaka’s fellow players, it probably sounds like a nice problem to have.

What Osaka and Rublev have to prove is what separates them in Miami

What Osaka and Rublev have to prove is what separates them in Miami