Naomi Osaka was apologetic – embarrassed even – she said, over an acceptance speech she is clearly not used to giving. No defense was necessary, however, for the polish and maturity she displayed Sunday in winning her first professional title.
Osaka’s 6-3, 6-2 victory over Daria Kasatkina in the BNP Paribas Open final signaled the official arrival of a new power source in women’s tennis, and at a tournament that one year ago saw a women’s final with 30-year-old Elena Vesnina defeating 31-year-old Svetlana Kuznetsova, it sure felt like a new era in women’s tennis.
At 20, Jelena Ostapenko won the French Open last spring and the youth movement defiantly continued in Indian Wells with players like Caroline Dolehide, 19, CiCi Bellis, 18 and Amanda Anisimova, 16, showing that they don’t appear to be going away anytime soon.
As for 20-year-olds Osaka and Kasatkina, they were scheduled to depart from the desert three hours after accepting their respective crystal trophies and prize money, boarding a shared private jet for South Florida and the Miami Open, which starts this week and where Osaka will face the legendary Serena Williams in the first round.
“I hope we will get to Miami without any fights during the flight,” Kasatkina said with a mischievous grin.
It’s pretty likely as the two, who had never played each other before Sunday’s match, conducted an almost unheard-of joint television interview before taking the court, seen on ESPN as the match got underway.
“I’m going to try not to listen to music [on the flight], so I’m going to see if she’s going to talk to me … see how that works out,” Osaka said.
The tournament’s first Japanese finalist was looking forward to her first private plane flight, just as she was looking forward to her first pro final and before a packed crowd in Stadium 1, Osaka said, like her Russian opponent, she too felt anxious.
“I was extremely stressed and extremely nervous,” she said. “But my plan was to fake that I’m very calm.”
The plan worked because after a few tight games by both players, Osaka settled in at 3-all, pinning her opponent behind the baseline but laying off on the frequency of her trademark high-powered groundstrokes while winning points on sharply angled approach shots.
“I wasn’t really trying to hit hard today, because I felt like it would be better for her to take my pace,” said Osaka, whose ranking will shoot up from No. 44 to 22 with the title. “I was just going to sit back and see what she does.
“I wasn’t that aggressive today. I was just more consistent.”
As Kasatkina was showing apparent signs of mental and physical fatigue, slamming the ball down following a double fault to give Osaka a break of serve to open the second set, Osaka went on to win five straight games to take control of the match at 3-1 with a pair of aces.
“I just knew that she was going to fight for every point … so I couldn’t afford to lose points based on nerves, and I had to keep making the right decisions,” Osaka said.
For Kasatkina, who has proven nearly unflappable against the top-ranked players in the game, defeating all four reigning Grand Slam champions and No. 1 Simona Halep over the last year, then upsetting four straight Top 15 players including a come-from-behind victory against Venus Williams in the semifinals, playing a peer was finally her undoing.
Uncharacteristically tentative, laying off on the topspin and touch shots that got her to the final, Kasatkina, whose ranking will rise from No. 19 to 11, said she could not manage her nerves and admitted she was fatigued.
“I was pretty tired after the match against Venus on Friday,” she said. “Physically I could do better, yeah … Basically she was much better today than me, so she really deserved to win.”
In addition to her fitness level, Osaka said she has worked hard on her concentration, though she found it hard to explain how exactly.
“I feel like it’s sort of a process that people need to, like, go through to understand it,” she said.
Osaka was better able these last two weeks to discuss her love of Sponge Bob, Internet memes, sushi and her superstitious ways. And thankfully, winning the chunk of Baccarat crystal along with a first-place check for $1.3 million – nearly doubling her career prize money – has apparently not yet changed her.
“Usually in the morning I eat the same breakfast, like, every time,” she explained when asked about winning habits. “But then today they brought me sourdough toast instead of wheat. I freaked out a little bit, but I still ate it. And then I was thinking, if I lose this match because of the sourdough toast, I’m going to be really upset.”
The room broke up in laughter, of course. And as usual, Osaka looked like she wasn’t entirely sure why. But her free-spirited ways clearly belie a fierce determination and on this day, the self-assuredness of a champion.
“I’m not really that sure on the habits that people have,” Osaka said. “I just think people who win more are more confident, and that’s why they’re more likely to win again.”