The legacy Naomi Osaka wants to build during her career has little to do with how many major titles she may end up winning.
- Osaka says she hopes to one day play an opponent who looked up to her when they were young
- She was inspired to play tennis because of stars such as Chinese great Li Na
- Osaka won her second Australian Open championship and her fourth major title of her career
At 23, she now has four in her keeping following her victory in Saturday night’s Australian Open final, and there is almost no doubt that there will be several more to come.
But trophies are not what motivates the Japanese star to continue playing.
Rather, it is the opportunity to inspire a generation of female tennis players who one day might be on the other side of the net to her, having been drawn to the game because of the example she sets.
“I feel the biggest thing I want to achieve … hopefully I play long enough to play a girl that said that I was once her favourite player or something,” Osaka told her post-match media conference at Melbourne Park.
Osaka was once a young aspiring tennis player.
She regrets not having had the chance to play against some of her childhood heroes, such as China’s two-time major winner Li Na.
“I think I have those feelings of watching my favourite players,” Osaka said.
“Unfortunately I didn’t get to play Li Na, but I just think that is how the sport moves forward.”
Osaka is a role model to so many children around the world who may have picked up a racquet for the first time after watching her exploits on court.
She says she now relishes the responsibility after feeling anxious about what example she may have provided for young fans earlier in her career.
“I would say, I guess, in the past I felt it as a very strong responsibility and I was also very scared and nervous of it,” Osaka said.
“Because for me I feel like people just see me on the court. That’s where most of the time I get the media attention.
“So even, let’s say I play a match and I slam my racquet, I would get very nervous about it, because I wasn’t sure if I would get very bad press over not being a great role model.
“But over the years I have just realised the only thing I can do is be myself. There are 500 other tennis players, if you want, to pick to be your role model.
Osaka would have added to her legion of fans following her 6-4, 6-3 win over 22nd-seeded American Jennifer Brady in the Australian Open final.
It leaves her with a perfect strike rate in the finals of majors.
She won in her maiden appearance — the controversial 2018 US Open final when she beat Serena Williams — and claimed her first Australian Open only months later when she triumphed over Petra Kvitová in three sets.
Her victory in Melbourne on Saturday night followed her second US Open title last September and she is the first woman since Monica Seles in the early 1990s to win the first four major finals of their career.
Even though she has a track record of rising to the occasion, Osaka admits she was “so nervous” ahead of facing Brady.
But she stuck to a simple approach, which again proved successful despite the nerves she was feeling before the final.
“You don’t go into a final wanting to be the runner-up,” Osaka said.
“For me, I feel like every opportunity that I play a slam (grand slam tournament) 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.”
Brady’s challenging journey
Brady had to overcome a significant hurdle before the Australian Open even began.
She was among the players placed under a strict hotel lockdown in Melbourne last month after being on a flight with a passenger who tested positive to COVID-19 after arriving in Australia.
Brady could not hit the courts for practice during her 14 days of isolation, instead being forced to come up with a makeshift training program to be carried out in the confines of her hotel room.
The 25-year-old was the only player in the women’s draw who went through hard quarantine to reach the second week of the season-opening major.
Throughout the tournament she refused to complain about the quarantine period and praised Australian Open officials for how they had catered for players.
In the wake of her loss to Osaka, Brady did not want to dwell too much on what impact the two weeks stuck inside her hotel room had on her performance.
“I made my first grand slam [tournament] final, so maybe if I wasn’t in quarantine I would have won, maybe,” Brady said with a cheeky smile.
“I don’t think it really hampered me much. Who knows? You really don’t know.
“But I think Australia is doing a great job … we’re able to live a normal life, go out for dinner, and that’s something that we haven’t done in a long time.”
Despite the disappointment of losing her first final at a major, Brady feels she “belongs at this level”.
“I think winning a grand slam [tournament] is totally achievable,” she said.
“It felt different than what I was expecting it to feel like. 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.
“So, I would say just being more comfortable at this level.”