The only way is up for Naomi Osaka as she looks to replicate hard-court success on clay and grass
The WTA Tour has been incredibly open in recent years and that is demonstrated with the wide array of Grand Slam champions in recent years, however it is looking more and more likely that Naomi Osaka may become the dominant figure in women’s tennis over the next few years.
The likes of Simona Halep, Ashleigh Barty, Sofia Kenin and Iga Swiatek have all won maiden major titles in the past few seasons, but it Osaka looks set to start taking charge.
Osaka was the favourite going into the US Open last year and going into this year’s Australian Open and on both occasions took the title, going against a recent run of tournament favourites falling early and a surprise winner coming through.
Mentally she has improved massively since 2019 and her dominance on court is starting to show, having won four of the last six majors on hard courts and becoming just the third woman this century to win majors in four consecutive years.
Her mental strength is particularly on show towards the end of matches where she often goes on streaks of points and games, and in Melbourne this most notably occurred in her fourth-round match against Garbine Muguruza.
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) February 20, 2021
The Spaniard would have been a hot favourite to win the title had she been able to take the 5-3 lead, and two match points, she held against Osaka, but the Japanese produced a sensational surge to win the match and did not drop another set on her way to the title.
Osaka is now twice a champion at the Australian Open and US Open and, considering she is still just 23, she could easily double or triple her number of titles at those events and seal her place as one of the greatest hard-court players of all time.
However, what is perhaps most intriguing about the world No 2 is her potential on grass and clay – two surfaces she is yet to reach a Tour final on.
She has never progressed beyond the third round of the French Open and Wimbledon and in fact, as the second seed, lost in the first round at the All England Club in 2019 in straight sets to Yulia Putintseva.
Osaka herself revealed that her target for the rest of the season is to be more consistent across all surfaces and improve on grass and clay, with the grass season cancelled last year and the Japanese withdrawing from the revised clay season.
Speaking to WTA Insider about playing on clay and grass after her Australian Open run, she said: “I feel more excited than anything. I think there’s a feeling of doing something for the first time and wanting to be good at a lot of different things. For me, it’s a real priority. And I also kind of want to complete my set of trophies.
“I feel like I have everything that I need to do well on clay and on grass, but it’s just about feeling comfortable.”
Champions Corner: Naomi Osaka on finding comfort in vulnerability and why she’s not shy about her goal of the career Grand Slam.
🗣 “I have everything that I need to do well on clay and on grass.”
Gotta catch ‘em all.
— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) February 22, 2021
Her coach Wim Fissette is also confident that she can succeed on clay, and there were signs in 2019 of her starting to find success away from hard courts.
She reached the semi-finals at the indoor clay event in Stuttgart, before reaching the last eight at both the Madrid Open and the Italian Open; she withdrew from both her upcoming matches in Stuttgart and Rome, showing she could have progressed even further.
Osaka is likely to only play at the Miami Open before the WTA Tour heads to the clay and grass of Europe, meaning she has plenty of time to work with Fisette and the rest of her team to continue some of that progress she made in 2019 and become a threat away from hard courts.
Though it might be a push to see her winning the French Open and Wimbledon this summer, it will still be incredibly exciting to see how she fares after playing the best tennis of her career over the past few months.
Follow Oli Jefford on Twitter @odicksonjefford.
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