Laver Cup was the talk of the tennis world this weekend. That’s not a surprise, considering the star power assembled in Geneva, and the rare chance we have to see them interact as teammates—not to mention guzzle champagne together. Men’s tennis finally has an all-star weekend of its own.
Like all-star weekends in other sports, though, it can be hard to know just how real the competition is in Laver Cup. So it came as something of a relief each evening to tune in to Tennis Channel and watch Naomi Osaka march to the title at the Toray Pan Pacific Open, in the city where she was born, Osaka. After reaching the final at this event twice before, there was doubting Osaka’s desire to win her home-country title for the first time, in the first year that it was played in Osaka. In fact, it was her lack of doubt about how much she needed this title that may have made the difference.
“I just wanted to win this really bad,” Osaka said after beating Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-2, 6-3 in the final. It was her first title since she won the Australian Open in January.
This was the Osaka that many of us had expected to see after that victory in Melbourne. She didn’t drop a set in four matches, and she buried her opponents in a relentless serve and ground stroke attack. In the final against Pavlyuchenkova, who had been on something of a roll herself with new coach Sam Sumyk, Osaka didn’t face a break point, and was 20 for 20 on first-serve points. While she didn’t play anyone in the Top 10, she did finally solve the riddle of Yulia Putintseva in the quarterfinals, and, later the same day, dominated ninth seed Elise Mertens in the semis.
Most impressive was her win over Putintseva, who had beaten her in all three of their previous meetings. Osaka was so determined not to go 0-4 against her, she nearly lost her grip on the match, and herself, late in the second set. After dominating the whole way, Osaka served for it at 5-3 and reached match point, only to have the pesky Putintseva scrap her way to a break. When Osaka lost her serve, she slammed her racquet down, pushed her visor over her face, and walked to the sideline in utter misery. We had seen this look from her many times in the past, and especially in 2019. And usually we had seen her go on to lose. This time, she broke serve for the match.
“I think what I learned from this tournament is just to focus every point,” Osaka said, “and just to have really positive energy.”
I wonder if the deeper lesson for Osaka is that she can overcome the bouts of despair that plague her, and may always plague her, by acknowledging how much she wants to win every match she plays, and constantly reminding herself of that fact. Playing in her hometown, she had a built-in reason to ignore her doubts and misery against Putintseva and do whatever she needed to do to win. Now we’ll see whether Osaka can do the same thing outside of Osaka.
Watching Daniil Medvedev win his third title of 2019, with a 6-3, 6-1 win over Borna Coric in the St. Petersburg final on Sunday, I was struck by how little he celebrated. After the last point, he basically walked to the net and shook hands. Even a title in his home country, and a win over an opponent who had beaten him three times last year, wasn’t enough to get Medvedev to lose his cool. It was the reaction of a player who has learned to act like he’s been there before.
Of course, this being Medvedev, his controlled celebration actually was an act, for his own amusement.
“I decided after Cincinnati, my style is going to be to try not to show any emotions when I win,” Medvedev said. “ I find it funny for myself…for my own reasons, and that’s what I did today.”
“But I was extremely happy and it was tough to hide my emotions.”
In other words, the Medvedev show rolls on, in all of its idiosyncratic brilliance. This week, he reached his fifth straight final, recorded his 24th win in his last 27 matches, and, perhaps most impressively, didn’t suffer any letdown after reaching his first Grand Slam final, at the US Open final.
Medvedev beat Coric the same way he beat people all summer: By making the shots you expect him to make, and then, when he needs to, making the shots you don’t expect him to make. Medvedev was impenetrable from the baseline, but he also mixed in serve-and-volley successfully, and came up with shoe-top passing shots when Coric came forward. By the middle of the second set, all the Croat could do was throw his hands up in exasperation as another Medvedev winner blazed by him.
“Many people didn’t believe in me this week,” Medvedev said. “I came here to win and I did it.”
Medvedev has qualified for the eight-man year-end championships for the first time, and he’s currently No. 4 in the rankings, behind the Big 3. He’s on something of a Big 3-like run at the moment, too. It’s hard to think of anyone else who has won so consistently, for such a long stretch, in recent years. What has set Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer apart is their ability to raise their games for the big tournaments, but not let them crash at the smaller ones. They take pride in winning every event they play, and Medvedev seems to as well.
Are we finally seeing the rise of a successor to the Big 3? It’s still too early to tell for sure. But it’s nice to able to ask the question again.