Osaka Showed Plenty Of Drive And Intelligence – And A Few Giggles, Too – In Winning Her First WTA Title

Naomi Osaka wins her first WTA title (photo: BNP Paribas Open)

WASHINGTON, March 18, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)

Both Daria Kasatkina and Naomi Osaka – two of the rising stars of the next wave of women’s tennis – came ready to play when they arrived on court for their singles final in the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, California, Sunday afternoon. While each was a joy to watch throughout the tournament, it’s too bad there could be only one winner.

There was plenty of fine shotmaking displayed by both of these intelligent and driven twenty-year-olds. Despite each of them appearing in their first big final of their respective young careers, neither seemed intimidated by playing in front of a sellout crowd of 16,000 fans on Stadium 1 court at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

Yet, in the end, the unseeded and 44th-ranked Osaka was simply too powerful and too good in all the important moments during this all-too-brief, 70-minute final. She easily beat the 19th-ranked Kasatkina, 6-3, 6-2, for her first career WTA title.

What a fantastic impression that Osaka made – not only against Kasatkina but throughout the tournament. Born in Japan, but now living in Boca Raton, Florida, Osaka knocked off World No. 1 Simona Halep in the semifinals on Friday, 6-3, 6-0, and earlier advanced – round-by-round – with impressive wins over Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Sachia Vickery, Maria Sakkari and Karolina Pliskova. She dropped just one set in her seven matches.

Throughout the final, Osaka showed much composure for such a young player in keeping her emotions in check. Her serving was clutch (five service aces and she won 79% of her first-serve points) when she needed it most. She controlled her power game from both wings by outpointing Kasatkina 60-40, and she covered the court so very well. Although Kasatkina won 71% of her first serve points, she was only able to win 50% of her service points overall. And, Kasatkina won just 16 points on Osaka’s serve. Added up, Osaka was the better player by far.

“First of all, congrats to Naomi and all your team; you are doing a great job guys, congrats,” said Kasastkina, after receiving her runner-up trophy. “It’s a shame you didn’t show me your tweener today.”

While the disappointment in Kasatkina’s voice as she spoke was evident, the Russian had a life lesson for everyone to end her speech. She said, “Never give up. Believe in your dreams. And just keep going.” No doubt, there will be better days ahead for Kasatkina.

Meanwhile, the wide-grinned Osaka received a great round of applause as she approached the podium to give her first WTA victory speech of her young career. She kept everyone loose with many laughs and giggles. “Um, hello. Hi, I’m Naomi. Okay, never mind,” she said.

“I would like to thank Dasha for being super nice and a really cool person. … This is probably going to be the worst acceptance speech of all time,” giggled Osaka. Trust us, Naomi. It wasn’t.

In fact, it prompted BBC5 Live’s David Law to tweet: “Blissfully bonkers acceptance speech from Naomi Osaka … Protocol chucked out of window, giggly, geeky, clunky … funny, funky, adorable.”

As for the match, both competitors looked comfortable, but there was a definite contrast to their playing styles. Kasatkina tried to push Osaka around the court with her forehand while Osaka was dominant with her backhand. Her “hit the ball hard” strategy worked to near perfection. Soon, it was Osaka who was locked in and focused.

After a pair of early service breaks by each player, Osaka powered a short forehand into the corner to hold for 2-1. Kasatkina responded to her opponent with a hold of her own as Osaka made a couple of forehand errors. Later, a ninth forehand winner enabled Osaka to hold for 4-3. Then, Osaka pinpointed a backhand down the line to break Kasatkina and push ahead 5-3. Finally, serving for the set, she won with a perfectly placed backhand winner – her sixth – that Kasatkina was unable to get her racket on. The Russian didn’t look as sharp as she had been during some of her previous wins – against Caroline Wozniacki in the round of 16, Angelique Kerber in the quarterfinals and Venus Williams in the semifinals – earlier in the tournament.

As the second set unfolded, Osaka immediately broke when her opponent double faulted. Then, she held for a quick 2-0 lead before Kasatkina finally broke her opponent’s streak of winning five straight games. Osaka held for a 3-1 lead with a couple of aces, then had a break point at 30-40 before Kasatkina served her second ace of the match for a deuce point. However, Osaka won the next two points to break, again, that gave her an insurmountable, double-break lead at 4-1. A forehand winner provided Osaka with another hold and a 5-1 lead. Finally, a game later, with match point on her racket at 40-15, Osaka hit one final back-handed winner for game, set, match and championship.

While it can be argued that Kasatkina’s near-three hour semifinal match against Williams took a lot of our her, much credit should go to Osaka for staying both focused and aggressive. It provided her with a tremendous one-two punch.

“Both players showed composure and this is a rivalry that’s going to be interesting,” said ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer Chrissie Evert after the match ended. In describing Osaka, Evert said, “She’s young, fresh and not jaded.”

Osaka, who improved her 2018 win-loss record to 13-4 – all on hard courts – is the youngest Premier Mandatory champion since Caroline Wozniacki won at Beijing in 2011 and the lowest-ranked Premier Mandatory champion since No. 24 Aravane Rezai won at Madrid in 2010. With her victory, Osaka will improve 22 places from No. 44 to No. 22 when the WTA rankings are updated on Monday. Kasatkina’s ranking will rise to No. 11.

Finally, after Osaka finished hoisting her winner’s trophy for the many obligatory photo opportunities, she was asked by ESPN’s Pam Shriver as she came off the court to comment about her quirky victory speech, which quickly went viral after she delivered it. Osaka deadpanned, “I knew what I wanted to say, just didn’t know how to say it. I’m just glad I won.” 

Then, Osaka put a final spin on her afternoon that was both complimentary (of Kasatkina) and philosophical (about herself). “She’s a super-good player. I knew I had to be consistent (to win),” she said. “If you put in a lot of hard work, you can play well, and if you try and believe in yourself you can win.”

About the author

Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.