Much like the Shinkansen, the bullet trains that dart through Japan’s countryside at shattering speed, Naomi Osaka’s path to transcending her sport has been prompt and – as many suggest – right on time.
She rocked onto the scene winning her first title in Indian Wells, the highest-profile tournament behind the grand slams, as a 19-year-old.
Later that year, she beat her idol Serena Williams amid high controversy to win her first major in New York, handling the situation with age-defying poise.
And by downing first-time finalist Jennifer Brady 6-4 6-3 in a 77-minute tussle inside a blustery Rod Laver Arena on Saturday night, adding a fourth major and second Melbourne title to her CV, she’s cemented her claim as women’s tennis’ tour de force.
Osaka has won her first four major finals, a feat matched only by Monica Seles and Roger Federer in the Open era. Osaka also joined six other women to win a major after staring down match point.
“That’s very amazing company,” Osaka said.
“I hope that I can have, like, one grain of how their career has unfolded.
“But you can only wish and you can only just keep going down your own path. But, yeah, it’s definitely something crazy to hear.”
And although this particular triumph wasn’t pretty, she was thankful it occurred at all, considering a little thing known as a pandemic.
“I would say at peace with where I am, and I’m honestly just happy to be playing a Grand Slam in a pandemic,” Osaka said.
On the brink of defeat against Garbine Muguruza in the fourth round, Osaka hit with instinct and faith in her clutch play amid adversity. She played out the remaining 22 points without a single unforced error.
That unshakable resolve, especially in grand slam finals (where she’s undefeated), was the clincher against an inexperienced compatriot as mid-match wobbles threatened to change the fabric of the contest.
Osaka blitzed through her first two service games without fuss. The only obstacle was swirly winds disrupting her ball toss. Osaka apologised after aborting a number of attempts in her first few service games.
And Brady, whose backcourt hustle and willingness to put that one extra ball in play willed her to her first major final despite two weeks of hard quarantine, put her in good stead as both players tested for nerves.
But two double faults let slip she was overawed. A rampant Osaka swung freely from the baseline and was handed an early break for 3-1.
The very next game, Brady had Osaka, one of the biggest ball strikers on tour, on the ropes as Brady dictated rallies with some fine retrieving and changes of direction to recover immediately.
It started a pattern where she inched closer to finding dents in the Osaka serve, particularly as the Japanese rolled her second serves on average 15 km/h slower than Brady.
A moment of freewheeling play at 4-4, 30-30 threatened to hand Brady the set. Hitting a lunging forehand return that just cleared the height of the net, she sprinted to the forecourt and dinked a one-handed sliding lob that cleared the Japanese’s head.
Osaka, who struggled to find her first serve and only hit 53 per cent over the two sets, drilled a couple of searing forehands that combated her biggest gut check of the match.
The masterful Brady forehand, hit with heavy topspin that allows her consistent depth and an ability to jostle her opponent around the court at will, brought her to 40-30 the very next game.
But a double fault and two Osaka mishits, one plum on the baseline, catching the American off-guard and another bouncing uncomfortably in the mid-court that Brady smacked into the net, ceded the set.
It was the invitation Osaka needed to loosen her shoulders, as champions do.
“So my mind just began thinking that she was either felt really nervous or really pressured, and I should capitalise on that by trying to, you know, win as many games as I could, like, pace-wise, because I feel like once a person loses the first set doubts start to creep in,” Osaka said.
For Brady, perhaps perplexed at her inability to capitalise, it launched a horrendous patch.
Osaka’s cool-headedness let slip a little ‘Come on!’ as she peeled away in the second set. The rallies Brady played toe-to-toe in the first set ended prematurely as the American overcooked her shots, unable to find the same firepower against a more polished Osaka.
Osaka’s trance-like run, yielding six unanswered games, came to an end as Brady’s defence-turned-offence drew errors off Osaka’s racquet. But given Osaka held a 4-0 advantage, it was a case of too little, too late.
The Japanese sealed the match with a 174 km/h unanswered serve on her first go.
Her racquet laid flat on her head, she soaked up what she described as a more surreal win than her maiden Australian Open title, which took a taxing three sets rather than a clinical two.
“Tonight I felt like was more of a mental battle,” Osaka explained.
However, it was still a stunning fortnight for Brady, one of the unlucky 51 players who shared a charter flight to Melbourne with a COVID-19 positive case and endured 15 days of hard hotel isolation.
Instead of channel flicking, she FaceTimed friends and family. She turned her mattress upright and smacked tennis balls for hours on end. And her diet was not of the kind her fellow players complained endlessly of on social media.
Routine, she says, minimised the impact of her solitude, as her 50 other strictly-quarantined rivals fell by the wayside by the third round.
“I think winning a Grand Slam is totally achievable,” Brady said.
“You know, playing out there, obviously I was nervous, didn’t go my way, but at the same time coming off court, I was, like, ‘Okay, that feels a little bit normal’.
“If you were to ask me maybe a year ago, I wouldn’t think it’s possible or it would feel like it’s, like, going to Mars.”
Osaka’s victory extends her winning streak to 21, dating back to February last year before the pandemic ground the tour to a halt.
She will now rise to world number two behind Australia’s Ash Barty.
And although she’s behind her idol Williams like-for-like (at Osaka’s age, Williams won six slams, including the ‘Serena Slam’), Osaka’s embodied the American 23-time major champion’s essence in her rapid ascent, becoming a beacon in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Having beaten the woman who inspired her to pick up the graphite stick in 2018’s test New York final – her father, Francois, judiciously studied Williams’ father-slash-coach Richard – Japan’s first major winner backed that up with an enthralling Melbourne title run four months later.
Adding to those back-to-back titles with another successive effort two years later, Osaka now only has fewer major titles than the Williams sisters and Kim Clijsters.
“For me, I feel like every opportunity that I play a slam is an opportunity to win a slam, so I think maybe I put that pressure on myself too much, but honestly it’s working out in my favour right now,” Osaka said.
Obviously, her next task is to take her hardcourt successes and translate them to red clay and pristine grass.
But with many years on her side, it’s fair to say the age of Naomi Osaka, much like those trains, has arrived at lightning-fast speed.