Tennis: 4-Word Mantra lifts Osaka

Naomi Osaka hitting a return during her first-round Miami Open win over Serena Williams (above), who cut a dejected figure after her defeat and skipped the post-match press conference.
NAOMI OSAKA, Indian Wells champion, on not forcing her opponent Serena Williams into uttering her trademark gee-up phrase.PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Naomi Osaka hitting a return during her first-round Miami Open win over Serena Williams (above), who cut a dejected figure after her defeat and skipped the post-match press conference.
Naomi Osaka hitting a return during her first-round Miami Open win over Serena Williams (above), who cut a dejected figure after her defeat and skipped the post-match press conference.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Asking 'What would Serena do?' helps rising Japanese star beat her idol in Miami opener

NEW YORK • Naomi Osaka knew what she was about to say was both unusual and revealing, but the rising Japanese star is generally not one to hide her feelings.

"This is going to be really bad," she warned. Osaka, coming off her first WTA Tour title win at Indian Wells last Sunday, proceeded to explain her reliance on a four-word mantra throughout her young career for guidance though big moments on the court. It goes through her head, and often comes out on the strings of her racket.

"Sometimes, when I'm in a really important position, I'm like, 'What would Serena do?'," she said.

And for the first time, Osaka unleashed it against her idol. Not that she had much need for it in a match that was low on tense moments.

But the 20-year-old said she turned to the mantra twice on Wednesday, when she hit two straight aces to hold a game in the second set, and went on to pound Williams 6-3, 6-2 in an unusual first-round matchup at the Miami Open.

"She's the main reason why I started playing tennis, and I have seen her on TV so many times and I have always been cheering for her," Osaka said.

Instead of rooting for the American on Wednesday, Osaka defeated the former world No. 1 after overcoming a brief bout of nerves and running her understandably sluggish opponent around the court.

Williams, who gave birth to her daughter in September, is still working her way back into tennis form and flecking away the rust.

MINOR BLEMISH

Sometimes she plays matches where she doesn't say 'Come on' at all, and that's a little bit sad, because you think, 'Do you think she's trying?'.

NAOMI OSAKA, Indian Wells champion, on not forcing her opponent Serena Williams into uttering her trademark gee-up phrase.

She looked overwhelmed at times by Osaka, and particularly helpless against her serves, both out wide and down the middle.

The world No. 22 hit six of her seven aces in the second set and saved the only two break points Williams, who had several egregious unforced errors throughout, could muster in the match.

After the loss, Williams skipped a mandatory post-match news conference and could face a fine for her absence.

But Osaka, who will face world No. 4 Elina Svitolina in the second round today, was more than happy to discuss a win that meant so much to her.

She said her goal was merely to impress Williams and she would have been happy to force the American to yell "Come on" at least once.

"Sometimes she plays matches where she doesn't say 'Come on' at all, and that's a little bit sad, because you think, 'Do you think she's trying?'," Osaka added.

But Williams' effort was clearly not enough, with fans hoping for a more competitive match.

Some felt it was unfair that the unseeded Williams, an eight-time Miami champion, had to play Osaka in the first round as a result of the Tour's ranking and seeding rules, coupled with her 15-month motherhood hiatus last year.

"Serena should have a special seeding, but also the WTA should use the most current ranking. The men do it. It's too big a tournament to have something like this happen," commentator Lindsay Davenport said on the Tennis Channel.

Former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, who gave birth to a son in 2016, beat Catherine Bellis 6-3, 6-0 on Wednesday. She said she understands both sides of the issue.

"We all need to be objective and look from every part of the view, because I do understand what people are saying... but I need to be objective on that question for everybody," Azarenka added.

The WTA has said it is examining the rules and could amend them to protect the rankings of pregnant players for as long as two years, including the time before and after they give birth.

NYTIMES, REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2018, with the headline '4-Word Mantra lifts Osaka'. Print Edition | Subscribe