For all the narratives about how the Australian Open women’s singles title was up for grabs, it could not have been but Naomi Osaka’s to lose from the outset. For other supposed contenders casting a moist eye on the hardware, it certainly didn’t help that safety protocols wreaked havoc on practice schedules. Forced quarantines threw off the conditioning of hopefuls who had the misfortune of having flown in to the continent on chartered planes with passengers stricken by the novel coronavirus. That said, she was always the conservative choice, and not simply because of a successful run to the championship at the United States Open.
To be sure, Osaka’s campaign at Melbourne Park wasn’t all roses. She had to withdraw from a tune-up event the weekend prior to the start of the Australian Open due to what she described as a “niggling injury,” although the oblique reference indicated that the move was more out of an abundance of caution than of anything serious. After coasting in the first three rounds, she then had to fight off an equally determined Garbiñe Muguruza to advance to the Round of Eight; she had to claw back from a set down and survive two match points in order to keep her bid for a second Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup alive.
Above all else, of course, Osaka had to deal with Serena Williams en route to the crown. Forget that the 23-time Grand Slam champion hadn’t claimed a major stop on tour in four years. As far as she was concerned, the widely acknowledged greatest of all time in the sport remained her biggest obstacle. And for a while in their semifinal-round encounter, it looked as though she would, indeed, find the going tough. After bowing in the first two games, however, she proved superior by far and wound up defeating her childhood idol three and four in largely workmanlike fashion.
In the aftermath, Osaka stayed typically humble, cognizant of her latest achievement but with a clear understanding that it was no guarantee of future success. All the same, the relative ease with which she dealt with Williams, coupled with the latter’s seeming resignation to the fact that Father Time is undefeated, effectively signaled a changing of the guard. And she’s exactly what tennis needs in a time of uncertainty; she’s confident, self-assured but not off-putting, and, most importantly, dependable. She’s the herald of a new age, and figures to be for some time to come.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.