The rise of Naomi Osaka

March 22, 2018

Fans of Serena Williams who have waited eagerly for her comeback may have been highly disappointed to hear that she has been knocked out of the Miami Open in the first round. But that is just part of the story.

True, her 6-3, 6-2 loss to 20-year-old Naomi Osaka would suggest the 23-time Grand Slam winner is still a long way from returning to her best, although fans hoping she can hit her top form at the Championships, Wimbledon can reflect that her game may be in a far better place three months down the line. 

However, the real story may be that of Osaka. Her emphatic victory over perhaps the finest women's player in history might come with all kinds of caveats due to her opponent's post-natal fitness, but having just won at Indian Wells, this could be a further sign of a major emerging talent.

Before the match there had been controversy over Serena's lack of seeding, with the tournament director James Blake arguing that she was being unfairly penalised for taking time out of the sport to have a baby. However, she was not being pitched against a seed - Osaka was also unseeded having just seen her ranking soar from 44 to 22 in the world with her Indian Wells triumph. 

To go from relative obscurity to winning one of the biggest events outside the Grand Slams is sure to get Osaka noticed now, with this victory adding to the attention. The question is whether it is the start of a stellar career, or just another consequence of a Serena-sized hole in the women's game.

The impact of the former world number one's absence has been evident enough; since her maternity break began three of the four Grand Slams have been won by players who had not previously achieved the feat. Wimbledon was the exception, but that was only Garbine Muguruza's second Grand Slam. 

However, of those first-time winners, Sloane Stephens has been around for some time, largely unable to meet the high expectations many had of her before stunning the world with a US Open triumph that has been followed by an equally dramatic form slump. Caroline Wozniacki, moreover, has been world number one more times than she has won a Grand Slam, finally breaking her duck in Australia. 

That makes last year's French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko the emerging talent of the last year, winning at Roland Garros when she had just turned 20. 

If history is any guide, however, Osaka may join her in spending the next few years challenging at the top. Not only is she the youngest Indian Wells winner since 2008, but also just the third unseeded champion, the others being Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams herself. 

Japan is not a country with a long history of great tennis players, with Kei Nishikori coming closest to becoming their first Grand Slam winner when he reached the 2014 US Open final. However, Osaka may have timed her arrival wisely. Whether, like Ostapenko, she can win a Grand Slam at the age of 20 remains to be seen, but even if Serena Williams does regain top form, her time at the top is limited. 

For these reasons, fans at Wimbledon should not be surprised if the flag of the rising sun is soon being waved in celebration for the sport's latest rising star. 

Image: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images from Keith Prowse subscription

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