In knowing when to take pressure off herself, Naomi Osaka shines again

In knowing when to take pressure off herself, Naomi Osaka shines again

Here she was in Melbourne, instinctively understanding that champions are the players who can win without being perfect. Naomi Osaka adjusted and compensated in defeating Jennifer Brady, 6-4, 6-3, to win her second Australian Open title.

“I was extremely nervous. I honestly told myself before the match that I probably won’t play well,” Naomi Osaka said after her 6-4, 6-3 win over Jen Brady in the Australian Open final. “I shouldn't put that pressure on myself to play perfectly but just go out there and fight for every point.”

Whether Osaka “played well” in winning her fourth Grand Slam title depends on your definition of the phrase. Statistically, this wasn’t her best night. She made just 48 percent of her first serves, and had eight more errors than winners (24 to 16). But if you define it the way the history books will define it—by the result—Osaka rose to the occasion the way she always does at the business end of major tournaments. She won her 21st straight match, and ran her record to 12-0 in the quarters, semis, and finals at Grand Slams.

This is a player who obviously knows how to deal with pressure, and that means knowing when to take it off herself. Tennis is a sport filled with persnickety perfectionists, and Osaka has been one of them in the past. When she joined the tour—and even after she had become a major champion—it didn’t take much to send her spiraling downward in despair. But here she was in Melbourne, instinctively understanding that champions are the players who can win without being perfect.

And the way they win is by adjusting and compensating. If you’re making less than 50 percent of your first serves, you may need to be sharper with your returns, which Osaka was; she broke Brady four times in her nine service games. If your forehands and backhands aren’t landing in the corners with the same precision that they did earlier in the tournament, you may have to drive them up the middle of the court, which Osaka did effectively, and which forced Brady to rush through her long ground strokes.

“I wanted to return well,” Osaka said. “I think Wim [Fissette] told me the last time I played her I wasn't returning too well, and for me, that's something that I really have been trying to target during this tournament.

"I also think my serve wasn't too great today, but my returns really helped me a lot, which is something that I wouldn't be able to say, like, even last year.”

This gets us to what has turned Osaka from a dangerous opponent into an unbeatable one at the moment. At first glance, she plays the modern game to a T: she hits big serves and big ground strokes, and rarely bothers with the net—of her 69 winning points, she won just four in the forecourt on Saturday. In reality, her game is based on the same principle that made serve-and-volley the style of choice for decades: everything she does is designed to take time away from her opponent.

Osaka loves the flat T serve, which jumps on the opponent more quickly than any other shot. When she’s returning, she loves to step forward and crowd the server, who can see her leaning forward and spinning her racquet in anticipation. From the ground, Osaka mostly refuses to back off the baseline; her opponent knows that if she leaves any ball hanging in the middle of the court, she’s probably going to watch it go by her a couple of seconds later.

“She plays so aggressive that she puts so much pressure on you to perform well,” Brady said, “and that's something that not every tennis player, you know, has that ability to do that.

“She hit good shots when she needed them. In those moments, that's the toughest time to find those shots. You know, to put you on defense when it's the big moments. She obviously has confidence in her serve and serving out matches and playing high-risk tennis when it matters. So, yeah, it's tough to face.”

It’s also tough, when you face an aggressive player, not to become over-aggressive yourself, because you know you have to take every chance you get to put a good swing on the ball. You could see the effect of Osaka’s power on Brady in the final game. Down 0-15, needing a break to stay alive, Brady had a good look at a mid-court forehand. But she went for too much and sent it wide. On the next point, she had another good look, this time at a forehand return, but she went for too much again and hit it long. The statistics show that Brady made 31 unforced errors, but that should come with a caveat when Osaka is the opponent. She forces you, with her high-risk tennis, to answer with even riskier tennis of your own.

As the reigning US Open and Australian Open champion, Osaka has now won her second straight hard-court-Slam double. One thing that’s enjoyable about her career so far, from the fan perspective, has been the chance to follow her ever-evolving attitude and philosophy. She seemed to come into this major with a slightly different worldview than she had in New York. There she was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, and she ended the event with what I thought was a stunning statement of confidence: “I’ve never played against someone who beat me when I was really trying hard.”

Osaka still hasn’t, of course, but in Australia she didn’t opt for such an ultra-assured mindset. To start, she put politics aside, at least for the moment.

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“For me, when everything happened in New York, I got really scared because I felt like it put me into this light that was a nonathletic light that I've never been in before,” she said. “I just came into this tournament just thinking purely about tennis.”

This time, when the tournament was over, she was quick to say that she’s not unbeatable.

“I think what I have learned on and off the court is it's okay to not be sure about yourself,” she said.

“I don't expect to win all my matches this year. That’s, honestly, somebody can give me a medal, anybody can give me a medal if I win all my matches this year, but I don't think it's possible. You know, tennis players, we go through ups and downs.”

Osaka says he’s not thinking about her future Grand Slam total. She’s not thinking about breaking any records. She’s not thinking about being No. 1. And she’s not, she told the Japanese press, playing with the same “anger,” the same desire “to put my stamp on the tour,” that she had when she won here in 2019.

“I like to take things non big picture,” Osaka said. “For me, I like to live in the moment…I don't want to weigh myself down with pressure and expectations.”

Judging by tonight’s result, the longer Osaka keeps the pressure off herself, the longer this winning moment is going to last for her.

Nestled between January's summer swing of tournaments in Australia, and March's Sunshine Double in the U.S., February can be overlooked in tennis. But not in 2021, with the Australian Open's temporary move to the second and shortest month of the calendar. Beyond that, February is Black History Month, and also a pivotal time for the sport in its rebound from the pandemic.

To commemorate this convergence of events, we're spotlighting one important story per day, all month long, in The 2/21. Set your clock to it: it will drop each afternoon, at 2:21 Eastern Standard Time (U.S.).