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Naomi Osaka's Road to World No.1

Date
28 January 2019

Naomi Osaka (JPN) is officially the new World No. 1. She is the first Japanese player - male or female - to sit atop the rankings and just the 26th female in history to reach this milestone. 

Born in Osaka, Japan, Osaka was taught tennis at an early age by her father, who followed the blueprint Richard Williams set after being inspired by his daughters - Venus and Serena - in the late ’90’s. 

Naomi’s early years

Relatively unknown, Osaka, who began using Yonex racquets more than ten years ago, rarely participated in junior tournaments, opting for the ITF women’s circuit when she turned 14. She turned pro at 15 and won her first WTA match at the 2014 Stanford Classic after defeating 19th-ranked Samantha Stosur. 

Her breakthrough year, reaching Top 50

In 2016, Osaka qualified for her first Grand Slam at the Australian Open, where she won six-straight matches to reach the third round. Her breakthrough came late in the year, when she reached the finals of the WTA Premiere event in Tokyo, defeating two top-20 players along the way. With her impressive results, Osaka climbed into the top-50 and was eventually named the WTA Newcomer of the Year. 

The following year, Osaka’s game continued to improve, but she was unable to win more than two matches in a main draw event. In the off-season, Osaka formed a new team, highlighted by Head Coach Sascha Bajin, to take the next step in her career. 

New team, first WTA title

In 2018, Osaka’s ascension to the top of the WTA rankings came on the world’s biggest stages. Going into the Australian Open, Osaka was ranked 72 and had not made it past the third round at a major.

Osaka’s work in the off-season quickly paid off at the year's first major, as she defeated two seeded opponents to advance to the fourth round for the first time at a Grand Slam.

Last March, Osaka arrived at Indian Wells as the 44th-ranked player and drew former World No. 1 Maria Sharapova in her first round match. In their first career meeting, Osaka defeated the 2013 BNP Paribas Open Champion in straight sets and the competition began taking notice.

“She’s a rising star,” said Sharapova after the match. “She’s been playing really good. She’s fast, aggressive, hits deep, big serve.”

Osaka continued her run to the Championship match with impressive performances over Agnieszka Radwasnka, Karolina Pliskova, and then-world No.1 Simon Halep, who she dismantled 6-3, 6-0 in just over an hour to become the lowest-ranked finalist since 2005. 

The 2018 BNP Paribas Open final featured a pair of 20-year-olds in Osaka and Daria Kasatkina, but it was Osaka, playing in just her second WTA final, who looked like the veteran. With her sixth straight-set victory of the tournament, Osaka captured her maiden WTA title. 

Quick rise to becoming a Grand Slam Champion

Osaka’s ranking improved from 44 to 22 entering the Miami Open, where she was rewarded with a first round match against Serena Williams. 

"She's the main reason why I started playing tennis,” said Osaka after easily defeating her idol. "Just playing against her is kind of like a dream for me.” 

After defeating another former World No. 1, Victoria Azarenka, in Rome, Osaka cracked the top-20 and was seeded for the first time at a major heading into Roland Garros. She reached the third round at both the French Open and Wimbledon, but it was the final Grand Slam of the year where everything fell into place. 

Osaka reached her first career Grand Slam quarterfinal after a three-set victory over Aryna Sabalenka in the fourth round and continued building momentum. In the semifinals, Osaka revenged her infamous 2016 US Open loss to Madison Keys’ to set up a marquee match with 23-time Grand Slam Champion Serena Williams in the finals. 

It was a match Osaka dreamed about since she began playing tennis more than 15 years ago with her older sister. Asked how the dream ended, Osaka quipped, “I don’t dream to lose.” 

Her dream became a reality as Osaka broke the strong-serving Williams twice in both sets en route to a 6-2, 6-4 victory to claim her first career Grand Slam and break into the top-10.

Back-to-back Grand Slam Champion

She ended 2018 as the fifth-ranked player in the world and was seeded fourth at the 2019 Australian Open.

Osaka cruised in her first two matches, but it was her third round match that set the tone for the rest of the tournament. Down a set and 1-4 against Su-Wei Hsieh, Osaka rallied back to advance to win her 10th-straight Grand Slam match. 

“I just thought I didn’t want to give up,” said Osaka who unleashed 41 winners throughout the match. “Anything that I can do to stay here a bit longer, I tried to do.”

Osaka, who led the tournament in aces with 59, defeated three top-15 opponents to arrive at her second-straight major final. In the finals, Osaka and Petra Kvitová were not only fighting for their first title in Melbourne, but the World No. 1 ranking was also hinging on the outcome of the match.

It was a back-and-forth affair in the pair’s first meeting. With powerful groundstrokes and serves being both of their strengths, the pair combined to hit 66 winners - an even 33 each.

In the end, it was Osaka, who converted on a break point early in the third set to carry her over the finish line. In nearly 2.5 hours, Osaka came out on top with a 7-6, 5-7, 6-4 victory to hoist her second Grand Slam trophy and to be crowned World No. 1. 

"I’m beyond excited to become the new WTA World No.1," said Osaka. "I’ve always dreamt of being in this position and I am honored to be part of the elite group of players who have reached the No.1 ranking.”

It’s just the beginning for the young superstar. At just 21-years-old, Osaka is the first Japanese Grand Slam Champion, first Asian World No. 1, and the first player since 2001 to win a maiden Grand Slam and immediately back it up by winning the following one. 

Her next goal? The Sunshine Double - repeating at Indian Wells and then winning Miami. 

“People who can win Indian Wells and Miami back to back, it's usually the best players in the world.”

And she has as good of a chance as anyone, after all, she is World No. 1.