Can Naomi Osaka make the court, and the sport, hers like Serena has?

Can Naomi Osaka make the court, and the sport, hers like Serena has?

After winning her first title last year at Indian Wells, the 21-year old beat her idol on tennis' biggest stage—and backed it up with another Slam.

The 2018 US Open women’s final between Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams was many things. It was a stunning upset. It was an unmitigated disaster. It was a night of chaos and composure. It was a war between a star player and a stickler chair umpire. When it was over, it became a proxy for arguments about sexism, racism and double standards in the rule of law. It was the only thing anyone could talk about for months. As the winner said afterward: “I don’t really know what happened.”

For movie buffs, the match conjured images from that archetypal Hollywood tale of generational rivalry, All About Eve. In the 1951 film, Bette Davis plays a Broadway star who watches as her most devoted fan, one 20 years her junior, takes a job as her understudy, and then takes over her leading role.

Tennis’ version of that Oscar-winning story had all the elements needed for the silver screen.

On one side of Arthur Ashe Stadium was Williams, the 36-year-old superstar who was going for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title. On the other side was Osaka, the soft-spoken 20-year-old who was playing her first Grand Slam final, had won one career tournament and who, as a third-grader, had written an essay about how much she idolized Serena. Sitting in Osaka’s player box was Sascha Bajin, Serena’s former hitting partner who now served as Osaka’s coach.

The story ended with the understudy, rather than the legend, lifting the trophy. But it also came with an unfortunate twist: rather than applauding, the audience greeted the result, which followed three Williams code violations, with a torrential downpour of boos.

“The memory of the US Open is a little bit bittersweet,” Osaka would say later. “I feel like it was so strange, I just didn’t want to think about it. I wanted to just push it to the side.”

What Osaka didn’t know was that she had bigger, and much less bitter, things in her future. Just five months after hearing boos at the US Open, she was roundly cheered in Melbourne for winning her second straight major title, at the Australian Open. In the process, Osaka assumed a title that Serena has previously held for 319 weeks: world No. 1.

In the end, what the US Open final may have signaled was a long-awaited changing of the WTA guard.

For Osaka, the movie script that had its finale at Flushing Meadows had begun much earlier. It was one she had been starring in her whole life.

“She’s the main reason why I started playing,” Osaka has said of Serena.

As Leonard Francois, Osaka’s father, told The New York Times Magazine last summer, the story began in June 1999 when he caught a glimpse of two young sisters, Venus and Serena Williams, on their way to winning the French Open doubles. François, a native of Haiti living in Japan, wasn’t a tennis player, but he wondered if he could replicate what Richard Williams had done. François and his Japanese wife, Tamaki Osaka, had two daughters of their own: Mari, 3, and Naomi, 1.

Many parents have tried to emulate the success of the Williams family, but François was especially committed to the dream. The next year, he moved his family from Japan to New York, where he once lived. Like the Williamses in Compton, CA, François, Mari and Naomi began to train on the public courts of Long Island.

The resemblances between the families didn’t stop there. In both cases, it was the older sister who was assumed to be the future star; in both cases, it was the younger sister who willed herself to surpass her. As a child, Serena thought of Venus as a “fierce swan,” and herself as the family’s “ugly duckling.” For Naomi, the dynamic was less metaphoric, and more straightforwardly zero-sum.

“I don’t remember liking to hit the ball,” Osaka told the Times Magazine. “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.’”

Twelve years later, Naomi got her win. By then, the Osakas had headed south to Pembroke Pines, FL, where the girls were home-schooled as they continued their tennis regimen. Naomi largely skipped the juniors, just as the Williamses had, and turned pro at 14.

Yet unlike Venus and Serena, who were pre-teen celebrities, Osaka’s potential went largely unrecognized by tennis scouts in the U.S. François decided that his daughters would represent their native Japan instead.

Whatever flag she plays for, Osaka is an example of a phenomenon familiar to tennis: she’s a global citizen with roots in multiple cultures—in her case, Haitian, Japanese and American—and a personality that’s hard to pigeonhole.

Some days she can play the part of a young Serena: fist-pumping, emoting and letting her majestic hair fly. On other days, negative emotions can leave her slump-shouldered and perpetually frowning. Unlike Serena, Osaka doesn’t aim to intimidate; when a match is over, she typically bows to her opponent and speaks to the crowd in a soft, high voice and a sometimes-halting manner.

Away from the court, Osaka is fluent in ironic millennial self-deprecation. In her encounters with the media, that can lead to moments of disarming honesty and surprising comedy, often within the same sentence.

Asked about her friends, Osaka said at last year’s US Open, “Oh my God, I literally only have, like, one friend that I’m actually completely, like, myself with...I feel bad for her...”

Asked what goes on in her head during a match, she described a frenzied inner dialogue of doubt that most recreational players would recognize.

“Right before [my opponent] hits a second serve,” Osaka mused, “I’m thinking, ‘Do not hit this down the line.’ Don’t go for it, right? And then there’s another part of me that’s like, ‘But if I hit this down the line, there’s a 50/50 chance it will be a winner and you could win the point easily.’ And then when she’s serving the ball, I’m arguing with myself: ‘Do it. Don’t do it. Do it. Don’t do it.’ And then the ball comes and I hit it down the line and it goes in the net. I’m like, ‘Why did I do that?’”

Many of Osaka’s comments—about her awkwardness, her indecisiveness, her fear of being laughed at—can seem shockingly unguarded at first. But that quality makes her relatable in a way most pro athletes, who are taught to always project self-confidence, never allow themselves to be.

“She’s growing into herself,” Chris Evert said at the Australian Open. “Two years ago, her answers would be one-word answers. She was almost petrified to face the press. But now, even though she’s soft-spoken, she’s very playful with the press, asking them questions back. It’s showing her charisma, her personality.”

Before 2018, a question surrounding Osaka was whether a player as inward-looking as she is could succeed at the game’s highest level. Could she banish the doubt and embrace the adversity that comes with competition?

That’s where Bajin—at least for the length of a season—came in. When he began working with Osaka in December  2017, she was ranked No. 68. But Bajin knew this immense talent had the raw materials of a champion. He says that while Serena and Osaka are “completely different” people, they share similar instincts on court.

“They kind of want to play the same,” Bajin said last fall. “They are very powerful, big serves, big hitters, both of them.”

Bajin’s job, as he saw it, was to help Osaka improve her consistency and fitness. He put her through drills that forced her to remain patient for long periods. The work paid off immediately, when Osaka beat two Top 5 players on her way to the title in Indian Wells.

“She had this power,” Bajin said. “She maybe didn’t quite know how to handle it or control it. Didn’t quite know when to pull the trigger, when not to. So I was trying to kind of maintain the raw power, and then, at the same time, also show that there are other ways of creating pressure on the opponent.”

Osaka’s physical skills weren’t a surprise to Bajin. What he discovered was that her personality also made his job easier.

“What I really love about Naomi is that she really preserved that innocence,” Bajin said. “If she’s sad, she’s gonna show it. If she’s happy, she’s gonna show it. There are no fake emotions. And that makes it easy for me to also understand her, because my job is a lot based on emotions as well.”

The primary emotion Bajin tried to project was positivity. It hasn’t always worked. This January in Brisbane, Osaka slouched her way to defeat in the semifinals.

“I just feel like I had the worst attitude today,” she said.

By the Australian Open, Osaka had more than learned her lesson. Her stubborn competitiveness has never been on greater display than it was in Melbourne. She won four matches in three sets, and twice came back from a set down. In the final against Petra Kvitova, Osaka squandered three championship points in the second set, yet won the third set anyway. Again and again, she banished her doubts.

Yet just when it didn’t seem as if Osaka couldn’t offer us any more surprises, she gave the tennis world another shock in February when she split with Bajin.

Osaka told WTA Insider that while she wouldn’t “say anything bad” about Bajin, and that she appreciated what he had done for her, when it came to choosing between her career and her happiness she was going to choose happiness every time.

“If I’m not waking up happy to practice and happy to be around the people I’m around, this is my life,” she said. “I’m not going to sacrifice that just to keep a person around. I have to be happy with where I am at in my life.”

As Bajin himself understood, Osaka is never going to fake it.

In All About Eve, the understudy, Eve Harrington, deliberately sets her sights on taking her idol’s place. The same can’t be said of Osaka. Even as she competes against her rivals, she remains a fan at heart.

After beating Serena in Miami last March, Osaka said, “I kind of wanted to impress her.”

At the US Open, after winning her semifinal, Osaka was asked if she had a message for Serena, who she would play two days later: “I love you,” Osaka said with a laugh.

In Melbourne, asked about the possibility of facing Kvitova, Osaka said, “I think to have the opportunity to play her for the first time in the final of a Grand Slam is something very amazing.”

Osaka was just being her normal, authentic self. But her humility is more than an appealing character trait: it’s also an effective, if unwitting, strategy. At the US Open, Osaka’s admiration for Serena helped defuse any animosity that Williams may have had for an upstart who was outplaying her. At the Australian Open, Osaka thought of her match with Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon winner, as an event to celebrate rather than worry about.

Staying grounded and keeping her expectations in check seems to help Osaka enjoy her job’s most pressure-packed moments. Instead of believing that she should win every match, she believes that she needs to play her best just to keep up with her more experienced opponents.

“I just thought to myself that this is my second time playing a [Grand Slam] final; I can’t really act entitled,” Osaka said when she was asked how she rebounded against Kvitova.

“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 that isn’t a possibility. I wanted to enjoy my time here.”

As Osaka returns to the site of her first major success, in Indian Wells, she continues to offer sports audiences something new. Yes, she wins with rocket serves and superhuman athleticism, but she also lets us see the very human doubts that come with putting yourself on the line in public. And while she can play with ruthless force on the court, she’s just as ruthless in the service of her own happiness—in staying true to herself—off it.

Serena hasn’t left the stage just yet, but Osaka is certainly up there with her idol now. Will she become the WTA’s next star? She’s already something better: she’s tennis’ next winner.