It was incredible how quickly, after Naomi Osaka has won the singles title at Australian Open 2021, that the conversation turned to what was next.
The Japanese superstar had just done something that only Roger Federer and Monica Seles had achieved in the Open Era, by winning her first four Grand Slam finals. She had just won back-to-back Slams – she won the 2020 US Open – for the second time, after triumphing at the 2018 US Open and Australian Open 2019.
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She had also, unofficially at least, established herself as the player to beat in the women’s game.
And it was telling that, after the final, Osaka was open to addressing the areas where she still has to prove herself – on clay and grass courts.
“I think that's the biggest goal right now,” she said. “I think everyone knows I can do well on hard court. For me, I just really want to get comfortable on the other surfaces.”
The discrepancy between Osaka’s hard-court results and those on the ‘natural’ surfaces of clay and grass is stark.
She has appeared in 10 career finals, all on hard courts. She has won seven of them, and, incredibly, more than half of those titles are Slam trophies. She also won WTA 1000 tournaments in Indian Wells (2018) and Beijing (2019) and reached three Pan Pacific Open finals in Japan, winning one.
🏆🏆🏆😘 pic.twitter.com/rESAJvuE6s— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) September 13, 2020
By contrast, she has only ever appeared in one tour-level clay-court semifinal (Stuttgart 2019) and has progressed beyond the last 16 just once ever at a tour-level grass-court tournament (Nottingham 2018).
She has never passed the third round at either Roland Garros or Wimbledon.
Wim Fissette, who has coached Osaka since the beginning of 2020, believes his charge has potential beyond her obvious hard-court talents.
“We focus on trying to make her better by every tournament, and to use the practice weeks evolving her game, developing her game,” he said.
“I really want to see her perform (on clay and grass). I have no doubt she can do really well on those surfaces, too. I really hope it's going to happen and she can also gain confidence on those surfaces because she hasn't been successful.
“Being really confident in her moving, in her maybe game plan, that's going to be the key for those surfaces.”
Part of the issue for Osaka is the fact she simply has not spent enough time on surfaces other than hard-courts to develop that confidence and instinct.
She did not have an ITF junior career – and therefore no opportunity to experience Roland Garros clay or Wimbledon grass, plus the junior events on those surfaces around those Slams – and played predominantly on hard courts at ITF level before transitioning to the WTA tour.
Osaka has played just 11 tour-level events on grass, ever, and has not played on clay since June 2019, having opted to skip the rescheduled clay-court swing following her US Open 2020 triumph.
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Should she begin to post stronger results on these surfaces, it would go some way to helping her achieve the consistency she craves.
“I feel like it's an honour that I'm in that conversation,” she replied when asked if she felt she could become the next “boss” of the women’s game.
“My biggest goal is to be consistent throughout the year, not just randomly popping up and winning a Grand Slam … (and) not to have a huge drop- off randomly in the middle section like June, July, you know, how I usually do.
“Tennis players, we go through ups and downs. But for me, I only hope that my ups and downs are less drastic this year.”