Always considered an extremely dangerous opponent and a potential superstar of the future, Naomi Osaka delivered on that promise in the most resounding way imaginable in 2018. Her year peaked with her triumph in a dramatic US Open final, where she outhit and outplayed idol Serena Williams in a performance of incredible maturity and poise. But her ascent began in earnest in March, when she bulldozed through three former/current world No.1s to win her first career title at Indian Wells.
It was perhaps the nature of her victories that was most remarkable – she dropped just one set in both California and New York en route to those trophies. Entering the Australian Open ranked No.72, Osaka won through to the fourth round – her best major performance at that point – to begin building the momentum that would define her season. She endured a flat period mid-season – she admitted to suffering depression in Charleston and went just 12-10 between April and August – and ended her year with a teary injury exit on debut at the WTA Finals.
Yet Osaka avoided the post-major winning dip that has afflicted many of her contemporaries, reaching the final at her very next event in front of packed home crowd in Tokyo, and also advancing to the semifinals of the China Open, helping her peak at world No.4 in October.
After 62 matches played in 2018, Osaka was:
“He (coach Sascha Bajin) just literally told me – what did he tell me? Hold up. (whispers) What did he tell me? … I don’t think he even told me anything. I think he just threw me on the court (laughter). Wait, no. Because we have talks before the match, but I think I forgot everything he told me (laughter). What did he say? OK. He said something like, she’s very aggressive, which I already knew that, so that was pointless. And yeah, he was saying … you know what, everything he was saying, I already knew (laughter). He was very supportive, so that’s a plus. Hmmmm. You know what, I feel like I’m sort of slandering him a little bit (laughter).
– after beating Maria Sharapova in the first round of Indian Wells.
“Sometimes she plays matches where she doesn’t say ‘come on’ at all, and then that’s a little bit sad because it’s like, do you think she’s trying? So yeah I just wanted her to say ‘come on’ once, because I knew then maybe she would be trying a little bit. So yeah, once I heard the first ‘come on’ I was like, yeah (laughter).”
– after beating Serena Williams in the second round of the Miami Open.
“Have you ever eaten green tea ice cream (smiling)? When you bite into it, it’s, like, sweet but also very strong. Like, that’s how that memory feels to me. I mean, of course I’m happy that I won a Grand Slam. I don’t think there’s anything that can take away from that. But I don’t know. I feel like not that when I look back on it that it’s a bad memory, but I feel like it was so strange, I didn’t just want to think about it. I wanted to just push it to the side. Then I played Tokyo. For me, Tokyo was a way to take my mind off of it. I think that’s why I did well. I’m still trying to take my mind off of it a little bit.”
– discussing her breakthrough victory at the US Open, several weeks later at the China Open.
Osaka’s marketability became a major talking point in tennis in 2018, especially after her US Open triumph. She took part in several sponsor-related activities, most notably when she became a brand ambassador for both Nissan and Shiseido, adding to an already lucrative endorsement portfolio.
— Nissan Motor (@NissanMotor) November 13, 2018
Osaka was given a heroine’s welcome in Haiti – her father’s homeland – when she visited the Caribbean nation with her family for a week in early November. Although she represents Japan – the birthplace of her mother – the 20-year-old discusses her Haitian heritage with pride.
— NaomiOsaka????? (@Naomi_Osaka_) November 10, 2018
Osaka also featured heavily in the mainstream media following her US Open victory; she appeared on the Ellen Show – and earned an admirer in actor Michael B Jordan – as well as gracing the cover of GQ Japan.
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