Has the next big thing in women’s tennis arrived? The emphatic manner in which 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, Japan’s first singles grand slam champion, annihilated Serena Williams, arguably the greatest player of all time and the crowd favourite, in straight sets at the US Open final would suggest so. Like Ms Williams, Ms Osaka has an all-court game, underpinned by a booming serve the speed of which she can ratchet up at will (in the final, she served faster than Ms Williams) and tremendously powerful ground strokes with which she can pulverise her opponent. Off court, the daughter of a Haitian father and Japanese mother, who migrated to the US when she was three, is winning hearts for her demeanour and grace.
On Friday, Japan’s NHK network interrupted their coverage of the devastating Hokkaido earthquake to announce that Ms Osaka had reached the final. After her victory on Saturday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe thanked Ms Osaka on Twitter, for “giving Japan a boost of inspiration at this time of hardship”. One in 50 Japanese newborns are of mixed parentage but the hafu, Japanese for a biracial person, often face prejudice. Ms Osaka is the latest dual-heritage athlete helping change attitudes in Japan — traditionally an ethnically homogenous society — along with sprinter, Asuka Cambridge, judoka, Mashu Baker, and baseball star, Yu Darvish.
Apart from being a triumph of diversity, what makes Ms Osaka’s win even more special is that she has always looked up to Ms Williams as her idol. She even trains with Sascha Baijin, Serena’s hitting partner for many years. Earlier this year, Ms Osaka described her meeting with Ms Williams, who was aiming to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles in the final, as “one of the best tennis moments of my life”. In fact, Ms Osaka wouldn’t have taken up tennis but for the example of Ms Williams and her sister Venus. Ms Osaka also has a 22-year-old sister, Mari, who plays tennis. Like Serena and Venus, the Osakas were coached by their father and grew up playing on public courts. Ms Williams will have another go at winning her 24th major at the Australian Open in a few months. But in the air of Flushing Meadows during the final was the smell of change. It seemed as though the baton was being passed.
First Published: Sep 10, 2018 18:53 IST
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