Up-and-coming tennis player Naomi Osaka has many dreams — to become the world No. 1, win a bunch of Grand Slam titles and take the court representing her country in the Olympic Games.
They are ambitious dreams, but the world No. 101 showed she has sufficient potential to realize those goals during the ongoing French Open. After straight-sets wins in the first and second rounds, she faced Romania’s Simona Halep, the world No. 6 player who finished runner-up at Roland Garros two years ago, on Friday.
The 18-year-old took the first set 6-4, forcing the sixth-seeded Halep to smash her racket in frustration. Halep rallied to eventually win the match, but Osaka’s remarks afterward packed a powerful punch.
“At the risk of sounding really arrogant, I kind of think that I can play like the top-10 players,” she said.
It was Osaka’s first encounter with a top-10 opponent, and the teenager was nervous before taking the court. The experience she gained while advancing to the third round in her first Grand Slam tournament in January at the Australian Open, however, helped her overcome any anxiety.
She trailed 4-2 in the first set, but the teen kept her composure. The 180-centimeter Osaka played the angles with her shots to irritate the opponent, taking four straight games to win the set.
Halep took things out on her racket, slamming it to the ground and breaking it at set point.
Osaka, though, subsequently committed a number of errors in a watershed moment in the third set. Serving while down 4-3, she committed double faults and other mistakes and lost her steam.
After the match, Osaka regretted costing herself a chance to pull off the upset. She admitted overthinking situations and losing herself amid the immense pressure that came late in the match.
The makeup of a winner
The child of a Haitian-born American father and a Japanese mother, Osaka is blessed physically and is known as a powerful hitter whose serve tops out at 195 kph.
She made headlines in 2014 when she knocked off 2011 U.S. Open winner Samantha Stosur at the Bank of the West Classic at 16.
As she makes her climb onto the global stage, Osaka is true to herself and her bright and bold character. The Osaka-native is not exactly a fluent Japanese speaker, having moved to the United States when she was 3. So she sometimes makes jokes about her lacking Japanese skills, drawing chuckles from media members.
At the Australian Open, she took out a higher-ranked Croatian player in straight sets in the first round. After taking the first set, the hard-hitting Osaka occasionally flashed a smile while on the court.
In the second round she faced 18th-seeded Ukrainian Elina Svitolina, who reached the last eight at the previous French Open, and the up-and-coming player won again in straight sets.
“I never feel pressure from playing someone that’s supposed to be better than me,” Osaka said after the match. “I’m just going to go in there happy and hopefully try to pull off an upset.”
Her run at the Australian Open was stopped by former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, who easily beat Osaka in straight sets 6-1, 6-1. However, the tournament was invaluable experience for her.
The word “happy” was also heard at the French Open, when she beat Croatia’s Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in the second round to become the first Japanese woman to make the third round in singles at Roland Garros since Ai Sugiyama in 2007.
“I have never played this tournament before, and I’m kind of happy to win two rounds,” she said.
About facing Halep in the next match, Osaka said: “It’s going to be really fun because she’s someone I have watched on TV a lot. It’s the same thing as [the] Australian Open, I play someone big in the third round and I’ll try to have fun.”
Osaka was a first-time selection to the national team in March, all the while continuing a steady climb up the world rankings from 127th in January to her current spot at 101. The jump in the rankings suggests she has a chance to earn a trip to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Though Friday’s match ended in defeat for Osaka, the loss proved she has vastly improved since the loss to Azarenka.
“I’m just going to take this as like a learning lesson, because it’s better than how I played in [the] Australian Open third round,” she said.
The rising star herself seems to recognize her immeasurable potential.