This week, we're highlighting our top five WTA players of the year. On Monday, December 7, we'll turn our focus to the ATP. Click here to read each selection.
This year saw Naomi Osaka come out of her shell in powerful ways, while still performing on the biggest stage. Despite playing just four events, the 23-year-old closed her season in September with her third Grand Slam title and a ranking of No. 3.
Notable 2020 Stats
Titles: US Open
Finals: Western & Southern Open
Win-loss record: 16-3
Notable wins: Elise Mertens, Victoria Azarenka, Kiki Bertens, Sofia Kenin
When this season began, the Japanese star had plenty of expectations surrounding her as the defending Australian Open champion. Things were looking good when she reached the semifinals of a warm-up tournament in Brisbane, but she was bounced out of the third round in Melbourne by Coco Gauff—the same teenager she taught a lesson to in the previous Grand Slam.
Osaka then appeared in a rare Fed Cup match, on clay in Spain, where she was trounced by Sara Sorribes Tormo, winning just three games. It was a head-scratching period, but as the tour headed into a shutdown, it was the least of anyone’s problems.
When action resumed in August, Osaka was in form, looking fitter and calmer than ever, and motivated by a cause far bigger than tennis. After taking an active part in the protests for Black Lives Matter in both Los Angeles and Minneapolis, Osaka sent a powerful message in New York, far bigger than her forehand or serve ever could.
"I think the biggest thing for me is to lessen the amount of regrets that I have," Osaka said. "So I feel like definitely during quarantine, the biggest thing I thought was when I get out of this, I want to grow as a person and I don't want to have that many regrets going forward.
"I'm not sure if it's a light bulb or if there was any particular moment that sparked me to speak up, but I do feel like it's been building for a while."
Following the police shooting of Jacob Blake on Aug. 23, Osaka boycotted the semifinals of the Western & Southern Open. After a full 24 hours of stoppage in play, she arrived on court to beat Elise Mertens in straight sets—no easy feat in any circumstance, let alone after making global headlines.
"I don't feel like I'm being brave," Osaka said. "I just feel like I'm doing what I should be doing. Yeah, so honestly, when people say courageous or anything, I don't really resonate that well with it. I just feel like, not common sense, but this is what I'm supposed to be doing in this moment."
The 23-year-old’s withdrawal in the final against Victoria Azarenka was due to a hamstring injury, one that would see her upper leg taped for the entire US Open and cause her to pull out of Roland Garros. Little did anyone know that Osaka and Azarenka would get their championship match just two weeks later.
At the US Open, Osaka didn’t play her best throughout the fortnight, and at times, she would make things very hard on herself. She lost sets to Misaki Doi, Marta Kostyuk, Jennifer Brady and Azarenka, yet in each match, she had a new aura of calmness to see her through the finish line. And each match brought an opportunity to wear a mask bearing a new name of an African-American victim of police brutality.
While her third Grand Slam title was a monumental career achievement, the summer of 2020 saw Osaka become a role model far beyond the limits of a tennis court. Her status as global phenomenon skyrocketed to new heights, and a lot of that is credited to a greater confidence in her support system and herself.
"A lot of people ask me if I feel more stressed out ever since I started speaking out more," Osaka said. "To be honest, not really. At this point, like, if you don't like me, it is what it is. You know what I mean? I'm kind of here for pride.
"I don't have to be here. So for me, I'm just here to, like, hopefully to beat people."