MELBOURNE • Naomi Osaka, who swept to her fourth Grand Slam title in as many Major finals with a 6-4, 6-3 Australian Open victory over Jennifer Brady yesterday, has made a rapid and at times uncomfortable climb to the top.
The 23-year-old's zen-like mentality and increased gravitas on and off the court have elevated her alongside Serena Williams to being the one of the most recognisable female athletes on the planet.
But it is her unceasing politeness away from the battlefield, coupled with her on-court steel, that makes her stand apart.
"Do you like to be called Jenny or Jennifer?" she almost timidly asked Brady in front of 7,381 fans - with the crowd capped at half-capacity over coronavirus concerns - before embarking on her winner's speech.
It was typical of Osaka, who also gave a deferential bow to Williams after knocking out the 23-time Slam singles champion in the semi-finals. Yesterday, the Japanese said she was "living her dreams" after her win, but humbly added that she will celebrate with anime and pizza.
Having grown up watching the Australian Open at "crazy hours" in the United States, she added it felt "surreal" to triumph for the second time at Melbourne Park.
"I'm really just living my dreams," she said. "I'm always shaking a little bit (at the end). Thank God I had three match points."
Osaka, who is also the reigning US Open champion, played some way short of her best tennis in the first set. But Brady played a sloppy game on serve to hand over the set to Osaka, who had a 20-0 record at Melbourne Park when winning the first set.
Osaka settled at Rod Laver Arena amid a six-game run, roaring to a 4-0 lead in the second before serving out the match to love.
A big serve sealed the victory in 77 minutes, causing Brady to fire a forehand return long, and Osaka held her racket over her head and beamed in an understated celebration. Having won four of her last eight Slams she has played, she warned she was not satisfied.
"I take every tournament seriously," she said. "I just want to be consistent and that is my main goal this year."
OSAKA'S FEAT IN NUMBERS
4 First woman since Monica Seles to win first four Grand Slam finals.
4 Fourth active player to win four Slams, after Serena Williams (23), Venus Williams (7) and Kim Clijsters (4). In the Open era only 15 women have reached this milestone.
4 Joins Caroline Wozniacki, Angelique Kerber and Li Na in winning the Australian Open in the last decade after saving match points.
12 12th woman in the Open era to win multiple Australian Open titles and first from Asia.
Amid an uncertain upcoming schedule, Osaka also said she hoped to play at the Tokyo Olympics. For now though, she planned a low-key celebration.
"I'm probably going to watch some anime... maybe (eat) pizza... and go to sleep," she said.
She will rise to No. 2 in the world when the new rankings are released this week after a polished campaign which will reinforce the belief that she has taken over as the new queen of tennis.
It is a far cry from a year ago when a rattled Osaka felt the strain of expectations as her Australian Open title defence fell apart with a shock loss to a 15-year-old Coco Gauff in the third round. Weeks later, she was embarrassed as she won just three games against Spain's Sara Sorribes Tormo in a Fed Cup tie.
"There's just a lot of stuff that happened that time, that it really made me think a lot about my life," she said.
"Am I playing tennis to prove stuff to other people or am I playing to have fun because I enjoy it?"
But things turned during the pandemic, when she gained a new perspective and became a vocal leader in the fight against racial injustice in the United States.
Her increased presence as a campaigner for social justice has fuelled her ambitions on court and she now possesses a 21-match unbeaten streak.
Once painfully shy in the spotlight, Osaka - who has a Haitian father and a Japanese mother - used her growing stature to weigh in on controversial topics, even condemning former Tokyo Olympics boss Yoshiro Mori for sexist comments.
She has become the world's richest female athlete, but has stayed grounded amid her rise to stardom after making her Slam debut at the 2016 Australian Open.
It took a few years to find her feet before she stunned Williams with a straight-sets victory in the 2018 US Open final and backed that up with a triumph at Melbourne Park a few months later.
Osaka, then 21, powered to world No. 1 but she felt unfulfilled.
"I think that also put a lot of pressure on me because I just felt it was me against the world," she said.
It led to a difficult period when she felt burdened by expectations until heeding a more relaxed demeanour. And she now has the tennis world at her feet and is one who inspires others.
"She's such an inspiration to us all and what she's doing for the game is amazing," said American Brady, 25, who broke new ground herself as a Grand Slam final debutante after being one of the 72 players unable to train during their two-week quarantine.
"I hope young girls at home are watching and are inspired by what she's doing."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS