Naomi Osaka set to become household name in Melbourne

Japanese wore wig on recent trip home but is fast emerging as a world star

Naomi Osaka smiling during the 2019 Australian Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
 - Simon Cambers

If Naomi Osaka continues to improve at her current rate, she will not be able to walk down the streets of any Grand Slam cities without being inundated with requests for selfies or autographs.

The 20-year-old made history when she won the US Open in September, a victory that made her the first Japanese player, woman or man, to win a grand slam, a win that was made even more impressive by the fact that she beat Serena Williams in the final.

At night and with a wig on

Unless, that is, she uses a ploy she has already tried, with some success, when she recently went to Japan, having won the US Open shortly before. “I didn't really walk outside,” she said. I just went in the car and stuff. When I did, I went at night and had a wig on. I wanted to try to do that. For me, it was very fun.”

Osaka got the wig from her sister, but said if she was not wearing tennis clothes, she could go largely unnoticed. “Honestly, I feel like people don't look at other people when they're walking around,” she said.

“I get that I'm tan and I would stand out a little bit in Japan. I think the only way people would really care is if I'm wearing some sort of athletic (wear)…if I was walking around with my tennis racquet. Other than that, I don't think people really care too much.”

Maturity and experience

That might change if she adds the Australian Open title to her US Open crown, a distinct possibility, thanks to her fighting qualities in the early rounds. Having come from a set and a break down to beat Hsieh su-Wei of Taiwan in the previous round, she recovered from a set down to get past Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia to reach the quarter-finals in Melbourne for the first time.

In the first few weeks of 2019, Osaka has come from a set down more times than she did in the whole of 2018, something she puts down to maturity and experience.

“The biggest thing for me is the belief“

“(Being) mature, I think, is accepting when things don't go your way,” she said. “It's one of the biggest things for me I think I don't do that well. I tend to complain a little bit, and I'm trying to fix that. I feel like it's a big problem.

“I think the biggest thing for me is the belief. I think I believe in myself more this year than I have last year. Like in Brisbane (also against Sevastova), I played the same sort of match…I lost the first set and I managed to win again. And it was against the same player. So I think (it is) just having that experience.”

With her big serve and power off both sides, combined with outstanding court coverage, Osaka has everything required to be the world No 1 and a win over Svitolina would put her on the verge of securing top spot. She would be the youngest No 1 since Carolina Wozniacki first became No 1 in 2010.

Naomi Osaka serving in the shadow during the Australian Open 2019©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
Li Na really impressed

Former French Open champion Li Na said she could see Osaka was something special from the first moment she saw her play. “I thought she was really calm, very mature on court,” Li said in Melbourne on Tuesday. “She was so focused on her game itself…no pressure, point by point. That quality and her focus really impressed me.”

Svitolina, who won the WTA Finals last October, is chasing her first grand slam title and also showed her fighting spirit in the last two rounds, winning through in three sets.

And Osaka said she will need to be at her best to extend her 11-match slam winning streak. “I know she's playing well,” she said. “I have played her multiple times now and I know she's a very consistent player and when she has the chance she does like to attack. I think playing her is going to be very difficult for me.”