Weeks prior to this year’s Australian Open, Naomi Osaka trained at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, a fabled Southern California venue that’s been a favored practice spot for many tennis notables over the years, including Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors.
Osaka’s masterful 6-2, 6-2 quarterfinal win over Hsieh Su-wei was also quite similar to the way a former owner of that club played. His name was Ellsworth Vines, ranked No. 1 in the world in 1932. Asked how he went about beating his opponents, Vines boiled everything down to these essentials: I hit the ball hard and deep into one corner, then into another, and then again into the other. Mostly crosscourt, but sometimes down the line. And if the balls come back? Vines paused briefly, intrigued by that rare possibility. In that case, I know I’m playing a very good player.
Unquestionably, Osaka felt that way about Hsieh. Two years ago, in the third round of the Australian Open, Hsieh put Osaka through the ringer, leading her 7-5, 4-1, before Osaka made a gritty comeback to win the match and, eventually, the tournament. Two months later, Hsieh beat her at the Miami Open.
But the riddle Hsieh poses isn’t merely that she plays well. It’s that she plays differently, her double-double-handed technique issuing an incredibly wide range of shots that are struck early, late, hard, soft, angled, spun, flat – a tennis house of mirrors.
“Whenever I play her, there’s a bit of hesitation,” Osaka said prior to the match. “She's one of those players that, for me, if it was a video game, I would want to select her character just to play as her. Because my mind can't fathom the choices she makes when she's on the court. It's so fun to watch. It's not fun to play, but it's really fun to watch.”
But Hsieh today was completely dismantled, the result in large part due to Osaka’s sharp preparation and focus. “I told myself just to be really intense from the beginning,” she said. “I felt like I knew what to expect and that I couldn’t afford to be lazy with my footwork or anything.”
The tone was set within 15 minutes. Osaka faced the first of an anticipated flurry of Hsieh questions, a break point at 30-40. She answered emphatically with a 114 mph ace down the T. Three games later, Hsieh served at 1-2, love-40, recovered to deuce – but on the second deuce, was at the receiving of a scorching Osaka forehand return winner, then broken by a sizzling down-the-line backhand.
Said Osaka, “But I think compared to last time I played her here, I was given more clear directions. I talked through it more. For me, I also feel like I've experienced, like, what it is like to play her in those tough battles, kind of how to avoid that situation.”
Time and time again, the Hsieh arsenal was grounded by Osaka’s ability to apply pressure. It started with the serve, Osaka winning 23 of 25 points when she got her first serve in, including seven aces. It continued with the return, Osaka winning a sparkling 61 percent of Hsieh’s second serve points. Having seized control of the two most important shots in tennis, Osaka thoroughly commanded the real estate. While Osaka struck 24 winners to 14 unforced errors, it was nearly the opposite for Hsieh: 14 winners, 23 unforced. “The first set I was not taking control,” said Hsieh.
After handily winning the first set, Osaka broke Hsieh at 0-1 in the second. Osaka completely dictated the tempo of the vast majority of rallies. Power and precision repeatedly put Hsieh on the defensive, giving her little space or time. “I was thinking I'm not doing too much,” said Hsieh. “She’s doing good.”
You’ve likely never seen Vines. As a more contemporary example, compare Osaka in this match to Andre Agassi, who drew on fitness and technique to smartly hit balls hard and deep into what he liked to call “the thick part” of the court, eventually generating an attackable ball that would either elicit an error or prove untouchable.
Two years ago versus Hsieh, Osaka was distraught for a good portion of the match. None of that was present today. “I prepared myself to be frustrated, but I actually wasn't frustrated at all today,” said Osaka. “I was able to see clearly everything. Someone told me that when you get angry, it's a lack of understanding. So I started to think that whenever I got angry in matches, it's definitely because I wasn't understanding what was going on.”
Those other legends that practiced at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, Ashe and Connors, also join Osaka as one-time winners of the Australian Open. The way she played today gave strong indication she could well earn a second.