Chaos theory has been critical to the discourse surrounding women’s tennis in the last decade. But in a section of the Australian Open draw where the favorites have held impressively to form, so too has Naomi Osaka been free from the negative consequences of the Butterfly Effect—even as one such winged creature landed on her leg in the midst of a battle with Ons Jabeur.
The reigning US Open champion was about to serve down break point when a voice from the crowd warned her of the swirling butterfly (lower-case). The Effect, which theorizes that small changes trigger seismic shifts, went entirely in the former Australian Open champion’s favor as she reeled off the final four games to seal the Tunisian, 6-3, 6-2 and secure a 17th straight win.
“The biggest thing I wanted to focus on today was my serve and my return, because those are the things that I can control,” she explained after the match. “I didn’t know what would happen during the point, but I did know that I could control whether I can get the return back, and I could control how I start off my serves. I was just basing my entire plan around that.”
It’s no surprise the insect planted itself on the No. 3 seed, a calm presence in a stormy sports setting, and up against a streaky Jabeur, who vacillated between screaming winners to screaming at her own errors.
“I was kind of more excited than anything to play her because I always watch her play on TV, and it looks really fun," Osaka said of the "free-spirit" No. 27 seed. "Like her shot choices, I would never do them, but it looks fun to like watch.
“For me, I feel like just having that variety in the game, I'm glad that everyone doesn't play the same, you know?”
In a clash between two of the tour’s most naturally talented ball-strikers, Osaka displayed just how precisely she has dialed her firepower—down from unbridled exuberance to deadly accuracy—striking eight aces and 26 winners, reducing the fast-rising Jabeur, a quarterfinalist at last year’s tournament, to sound and fury as her audacious swings mostly missed their mark.
“Everyone has always said that…I'm a hard hitter, but I think with Wim [Fissette] over 2020 and 2021, we've just been working on, sure, I can hit hard, but paying attention to the heaviness of the ball, too, and I think that is really important because it pushes the other person back.”
The aforementioned winning streak, which dates back to the resumption of play following the WTA tour’s COVID-19 lockdown, similarly illustrates her refined approach to excellence. Opting to miss Roland Garros and give two injury walkovers—including one last week at the Gippsland Trophy in Melbourne Park—Osaka has grown lightyears from the teenager who once debated with then-coach David Taylor on whether she ought to play through an injury or retire, and into an athlete who knows how to preserve her body so that it may perform when it matters most.
Small change, big shift: when the 23-year-old shows up to play, she is utterly ruthless, losing just 13 games (tying Serena Williams) through the first week of the Australian Open.
“There's actually a ton of work that I've put in, but I'm actually okay that people don't notice it or if people don't notice it, because I feel like the more you broadcast that you're working hard, the more, like, pressure you would put on yourself. It's cool to be a bit under the radar.”
Osaka will encounter two more disrupting elements all at once in her next match, one that will not only take place without fans in adherence to Melbourne’s suddenly-announced five-day lockdown, but also pit her against an equally dominant Garbiñe Muguruza.
Muguruza has dropped three fewer games than the Japanese star, and is an unfamiliar opponent. Having only practiced together once, on grass, Osaka will be forced to rely on her two biggest keys to calming the chaos: hard work and love of the game.
“I think you can't be successful at a sport that you don't love or enjoy playing. I mean, you probably can, but I feel like it's a waste of time to spend the majority of your life doing something that you don't like when there's so many other things you could do.
“For me, I feel like it's really important just to be passionate about the things that you spend a lot of time doing.”