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Naomi Osaka finds new motivation despite Miami loss

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Just over two years ago, over dinner at the Australian Open, Iga Swiatek told Naomi Osaka that she wasn’t sure a career in the tennis was going to go her way, so she was thinking about going to college.

Osaka, who was then 22 and had already won two Grand Slam titles, told Swiatek it was a very bad idea. You’re really good,” Osaka told Swiatek, who at the time was still doing her high school homework. Don’t divert your energy to college just yet, Osaka advised.

Swiatek took Osaka’s advice, and it’s a good thing she did. Nine months later, she came out of nowhere to win Roland-Garros despite being ranked 54th in the world. In a clash of styles, stories and friends on Saturday in the Miami Open final, Swiatek ended a run that Osaka hopes will mark the start of the next chapter of his turbulent career with a win. 6-4, 6-0 to cement his remarkable rise to the top of his game.

Next week, Swiatek will officially take over the No. 1 ranking, the first player from Poland to reach this high level. As she held up the winner’s trophy, Swiatek called Osaka “an inspiration” and said she never imagined when they were having that dinner that they could actually compete for championships one day.

“I think this is the start of a great rivalry,” Swiatek said.

For Osaka, this tournament marked a remarkable turnaround that few saw coming, although she felt it was not far off. Just three weeks ago, at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, a lone heckler shook her during her second-round match, bringing her to tears and triggering memories of the racist treatment Serena and Venus Williams received. endured at the event two decades ago.

But it also seemed to suggest that Osaka, who lost 6-0, 6-4 to Veronika Kudermatova that night, might not be ready for the grind and pressures of the pro tennis tour after a year filled with breaks. and setbacks, a revelation of a years-long struggle with her mental health and questions about whether playing tennis could ever make her happy.

However, in South Florida, her home for most of her childhood, a much steelier Osaka took to the court, and she played much like she had when she won four Grand Slams. . She won eight straight sets on her way to a semi-final match in which she fought back against an opponent, Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, who had repeatedly beaten her for years.

Osaka was once again ripping up forehands on the court and offering unreturnable laser serves when she needed them most. Beyond tennis, however, there has been a lightness to his experience. Even in Saturday’s loss, she couldn’t help but smile as the hometown crowd cheered her on.

They were never stronger than when James Blake, the former pro and tournament director for this event, looked at Osaka at the awards show and said, “I can’t tell you how much it good to see you happy again.”

Then it was Osaka’s turn. “I know I haven’t been in this position for a little while,” she told the crowd after her first final since the Australian Open 2021. “The result was not what you wanted, but I hope I can keep working hard and be able to do it again soon.”

At Swiatek, Osaka encountered a version of a player that didn’t exist when Osaka was last a mainstay at major tournaments.

With Ashleigh Barty’s sudden retirement last week, Swiatek rose to No. 1 in the standings, thanks in large part to a fiery start to the year. Since losing in the Australian Open semi-finals, Swiatek has won three masters-level titles, in Doha, Indian Wells and Miami, events that sit just below the Grand Slam tournaments.

She entered Sunday’s final on a 16-game winning streak. But it’s the way she handled all the winnings that makes her opponents leave the field with a dazed, glassy look in their eyes.

Gone is the shaky mind that rattles after a handful of points or lost games or a set. She has become a ruthless problem solver who tears up her opponents, especially in the finals. She’s apparently gained a half-step — or maybe just a willingness to embrace the next level of fatigue — that allows her to expand points and force opponents to land extra punches when they thought the point was. ended.

She’s also pretty much the only player in the world who can pull off some sort of tennis magic trick when a ball goes through the net and lands inches from her feet. In a split second, Swiatek crouches so low that her skirt is basically on the ground and fires a kind of swinging half volley that allows her to get back on the attack. She seems to be inventing a new move every game these days. Saturday was a squash shot lob that landed inches from the baseline.

Osaka, who entered the tournament ranked 77th, had little to lose in the final. She had never lost the final of a Grand Slam tournament or a Masters 1000, but neither had Swiatek. Osaka positioned herself several steps up the court on Swiatek’s second serve, trying to rely on her quick hands and instinctive skill to return the ball and keep Swiatek off balance.

The strategy never really clicked. Swiatek never faced a break point and she put Osaka on the defensive from the start. It took Osaka 11 minutes to save serve in the opener. In the afternoon, she won nearly two-thirds of the points on her first serve, which hovered around 120mph, but only a third of those on her second, which was often in the mid-70s.

Osaka’s next move will be closely watched. The clay court season in Europe is fast approaching. Clay has long been his worst surface, so the next few months could be trying.

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