Naomi Osaka was just beginning her run to win the 2021 Australian Open when she created the most memorable moment of the tournament with only her grace. In her third round match against Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur, Osaka was briefly interrupted by a persistent butterfly that landed on her arm, moved up to her face, and then to her leg.
It could have been an annoying situation for many athletes in the heat of competition, but it didn’t appear to bother Osaka. She brought the butterfly over the sideline, placed it down, and went on to win the match in straight sets. It was a small moment, but it captured the wonder of the 23-year-old superstar so perfectly.
When the ball is in play, Osaka is a vicious competitor known for blazing serves and pinpoint forehands. When she isn’t between the lines, Osaka is charming and empathetic and just seems downright gentle.
Osaka now has four Grand Slam titles to her name, after beating Jennifer Brady in the final and defeating Serena Williams, 6-3, 6-4, in the semifinals on Wednesday night which certainly felt like it could have been the actual final.
Osaka has been tennis’ shooting star since she defeated Williams in the final of the 2018 US Open. At the time, Serena was coming off a long maternity leave and Osaka’s run to the championship was a Cinderella story. If the matchup in this year’s Aussie semis didn’t exactly feel like the passing of the torch, there’s no doubt Osaka has now grown into the more physically dominant player and the most exciting thing in the sport.
Osaka admitted to having some jitters at the start of the match as she dropped the first two games to Williams. Eventually, her youth, athleticism, and strength won out.
Osaka’s serve overpowered Williams throughout the match. She was ripping aces, hitting shots at impossible angles, and catching the icon flat-footed on volleys. Williams had looked spry in her run to the semis, but against Osaka she finally started to show her age. This is what a 23-year-old vs. a 39-year-old looks like in a sport that has historically rewarded youth.
Naomi Osaka catches Serena flat footed and takes 4 straight points to win the game pic.twitter.com/YYD4Vc2Tfe— Alex. . (@Dubs408) February 18, 2021
Osaka is just on a different level from anyone else in women’s tennis right now. The win marked her 21st straight victory. She is now 11-0 once she reaches the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam. It’s an incredible stat that shows just how locked in she gets in the biggest moments.
Osaka’s talent is enough to dominate her peers, but it’s her charisma that has made her a global superstar. The highest-earning female athlete of 2020, Osaka has a rare ability to feel authentic and unpretentious even as she’s accomplishing historic athletic feats.
Her post-match interview after beating Williams showed why she’s so popular. She talked about eating Greek food as a good luck charm:
A coincidence? ️@naomiosaka had been eating Japanese food before her matches but switched it out for Greek food last night.— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) February 18, 2021
Since then, @steftsitsipas upset Rafael Nadal & she secured a win over Serena Williams.
"Maybe I should keep eating Greek food"#AusOpen | #AO2021 pic.twitter.com/0TP2oUwf26
She talked about returning Serena’s serve:
Courier: "How did you know where Serena's serve was going?"— CJ Fogler #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) February 18, 2021
Osaka: "I was just guessing... it's either going this way or that way" pic.twitter.com/CymOxNWDuO
And she also spoke about what it was like to again face her idol.
“I don’t know if there is any little kids out here today, but I was a little kid watching her play and just to be on the court playing against her for me is a dream,” Osaka said. “And I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned over the years is you’re a competitor, you’re playing against another competitor — and that itself is the funnest part because tennis is a game.”
For all of Osaka’s talent, she also seems soft-spoken and thoughtful and kind. It almost looked like she felt bad about beating her idol, but she simply didn’t have any other choice.
Osaka was born to a Haitian father and a Japanese mother in Japan before moving to the United States when she was three years old. Tennis fans have seen her grow up before our eyes over the last few years. When NBA players went on a wildcat strike following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, Osaka dropped out of the Western & Southern Open to protest police brutality and racial inequality.
When she arrived at the U.S. Open the next week, she took court wearing masks with the names of victims of police brutality. Then she went on to win the event for her third Grand Slam title.
Naomi Osaka brought seven face masks to the US Open.— The Undefeated (@TheUndefeated) September 12, 2020
Each mask highlights a different Black victim of racial injustice and police brutality.
- Breonna Taylor
- Elijah McClain
- Ahmaud Arbery
- Trayvon Martin
- George Floyd
- Philando Castile
Today: Tamir Rice
It was inspiring to see a young athlete who always seemed so shy grow into her voice. Her statements on social media and op-ed in Esquire where she supported the idea of defunding the police only further added to her reputation as being compassionate and socially aware.
It feels like we’re witnessing Osaka’s prime right now, and it’s brilliant to behold. Off the court, she’s thoughtful, graceful, smart, and socially conscious. On the court, she will destroy you. This is what a superstar for the next generation looks like. Osaka’s every move from here on out will be must watch.