Miami Gardens, Florida – A little over two years ago over dinner at the Australian Open Yoga Saint told Naomi Osaka that she wasn’t sure her tennis career would make her way, so she thought about going to college.
Osaka, who was then 22 years old and who had already won two Grand Slam titles, told Svetek that it was a terrible idea. You’re really good, ”Osaka said to Svetek, who at the time was still scoring homework in high school. Don’t waste your energy on college, Osaka advised.
The saint listened to Osaka’s advice, and it’s good that she did. Nine months later she appeared out of nowhere to win the French Open, while she finished 54th in the world. On Saturday, in a clash of styles, stories and friends in the Miami Open final, Svyatek finished the series, which Osaka hopes will be the start of the next chapter of her tumultuous career, a 6-4, 6-0 victory. her wonderful ascent to the top of her sport.
Next week, Sviatek will officially move up to № 1, the first player from Poland to climb this high perch. Holding the winner’s trophy in her hands, Svetek called Osaka an “inspiration” and said she would never have imagined that if they ate that dinner, they could actually play each other at the championship.
“I think this is the beginning of a great rivalry,” said Sviatek.
For Osaka, this tournament was a significant turning point that few saw, even if she felt it was just around the corner. Just three weeks ago at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, a lone hawker annoyed her during a second-round match, bringing to tears and evoking memories of the racist treatment Serena and Venus Williams experienced at the event two decades ago.
But it also seemed to suggest that Osaka, who lost to Veronica Kudermatova 6-0, 6-4 that evening, may not be able to withstand the pressure of a professional tennis tour after a year filled with breaks and setbacks. years of struggling with her mental health and questions about whether playing tennis could ever make her happy.
However, in South Florida, her home for most of her childhood, a much more steely Osaka came on the court, and she played the way she did when she won four Grand Slam tournaments. She won eight sets in a row on her way to a semi-final match against her rival, Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, who has repeatedly beaten her over the years.
Osaka tore the forehands on the court again and came up with unavoidable laser feeds when they needed them most. But other than tennis, her experience was light. Even in Saturday’s defeat, she couldn’t help but smile as the hometown crowd choked her with applause.
They were never louder than when James Blake, a former professional and tournament director of the event, looked at Osaka during the awards ceremony and said, “I can’t tell you how nice it is to see you happy again.”
Then it was Osaka’s turn. “I know I didn’t hold that position for long,” she told the crowd after her first final since the 2021 Australian Open. “The result was not what you wanted, but I hope I can continue to work hard and be able to do it again.”
In the past, as she will say later, she will cry with disappointment after a day like Saturday. Instead, she perceived it as a “sad result, but a fun day.
“It’s great to see where level № 1 is, and whether I can achieve that,” she said.
In Shrine, Osaka faced a version of a player who was not there when Osaka was the mainstay of important tournaments.
After the sudden retirement of Ashley Barty in late March, Sviatek took first place in the rankings, largely due to the hot start to the year. Since losing in the semi-finals the Australian Open has won three Masters titles in Doha, Indian Wells and Miami, competitions that are just below the Grand Slam tournaments.
Saturday’s final is a 16-match winning streak. But it is the way she has won all the victories that makes her opponents leave the court with dazed and glazed eyes.
Gone is the shaky consciousness that rattled after a few lost points, games or sets. She has become a ruthless problem solver who tears up opponents, especially in the finals. It would seem that she got a half-step – or maybe just a willingness to move to the next level of fatigue – which allows her to increase points and force opponents to strike extra blows if they thought the point was over.
She is also almost the only player in the world who can constantly perform a kind of tennis trick when the ball flies through the net and hits inches from her feet. In a split second Svyatek squats so low that her skirt mostly lies on the ground and makes a kind of half-volley that allows her to return to attack. These days she seems to be inventing a new punch in every match. On Saturday it was a backlash to the squash that landed inches from the baseline.
Osaka, who entered the tournament in 77th place, had little to lose in the final. She never lost in the finals in either the Grand Slam or the Masters 1000, but Sviatek did not lose. Osaka took a few steps into the field on Svyatek’s second inning, trying to rely on his quick hands and instinctive ability to bounce the ball and keep Svyatek out of balance.
The strategy never worked. “I could never figure out what to do,” Osaka said.
The saint never faced a break point, and she kept Osaka in defense from the start. It took Osaka 11 minutes to hold the serve in the first game. In the afternoon, she won nearly two-thirds of the points on her first inning, which was about 120 miles per hour, but only one-third of the points on her second, which was often in the mid-70s.
Osaka’s next step will be closely monitored. The season of ground courts in Europe is fast approaching. Clay has long been its worst surface. Grass for her is also not a picnic. But she said she will travel to Europe later this month to prepare for the Madrid Open, and her schedule includes an extra week of training.
After months of asking what she wants from her tennis life, she is desperate to do well, she said. She wants to be seeded for the French Open, which would likely mean getting into the top 30. And she wants to get into the top 10 by the end of the year and regain her top ranking next year.
“It’s good to chase after something,” she said. “It’s a feeling I missed.”