When a Japanese journalist asked Naomi Osaka how she seemed so relaxed on the court during one of her Australian Open matches this fortnight, the world No. 4 gave the following explanation.
“What makes me relaxed is the fact that I know that I’ve put in a lot of time during the offseason on my fitness. I feel like I can sort of relax and let the other person do whatever they want, and I have confidence that I can run it down. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why you think I’m relaxed,” said Osaka.
Running down balls is not necessarily the first thing you think of when the power-hitting US Open champion comes to mind. But over the past 10 months, she has made dramatic improvements to her movement and fitness and is feeling increasingly confident in her own physical abilities.
During her tough three-set win over Hsieh Su-Wei in the third round in Melbourne, Osaka had to do a lot of running to deal with her opponent’s creativity. What got her through it?
“I did a lot of offseason training like running, so I just felt like I had to trust my athleticism, in a way,” said the 21-year-old.
The man behind her fitness transformation is her strength and conditioning coach, Abdul Sillah, who joined Team Osaka last year just before Indian Wells, a tournament she ended up winning, announcing her official arrival to the big stage.
“That was his first tournament, so he’s sort of a good luck charm,” Osaka told Sport360 of Sillah.
Squad up 💪 pic.twitter.com/ClXfXB0M4e
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@Naomi_Osaka_) March 19, 2018
Indian Wells was Osaka’s first-ever title victory. Her second came six months later at the US Open. Sillah helped three different players triumph at the US Open: Osaka, Sloane Stephens and Serena Williams.
He first met Williams in 2004 in San Jose, where he is from. He was there doing a speed camp with NFL players and she was there to watch her sister Venus compete in a tournament while she was recovering from knee surgery. Serena’s uncle started communicating with Sillah and eventually he joined her team. They worked together for nearly a decade.
Sascha Bajin, who used to be Serena’s hitting partner, brought on Sillah to Team Stephens in 2016 when she was sidelined with a foot injury that led to surgery. Sillah was with her during her dream comeback that saw her win the 2017 US Open just two months after she returned from an 11-month hiatus.
“Timing is everything, right?” Sillah says with a laugh when I point out how both Osaka and Stephens experienced immediate success after he started working with them.
He refuses to take credit for either player’s success and explains why he thinks things started clicking for Osaka at Indian Wells last year.
“She finally had a team around her at that point, like a full team. Which I think probably helped a lot. And when you have a full team, that usually builds confidence,” said Sillah.
That team includes Bajin, who has been Osaka’s coach since the end of 2017.
Sillah believes the common thread between Osaka, Stephens and Serena is “athleticism”. He has worked with all types of athletes, from Olympic speed skaters, to MLB players, and he says the goal with Osaka was to create a “sprinter” out of her on the court.
Osaka grew up idolising Serena and their games share many similarities.
“Naomi and Serena, what they have in common is their ‘teachability’. I always say, if you’re teachable, it’s easy for you to become a champion,” says Sillah.
“The ones that have a problem I believe in any sport are the ones who are unteachable and uncoachable. Because you have arguments and debates which means someone is going to win and someone is going to lose. That someone always thinks they know better than the other.
“Naomi is very humble with that, always asking questions and wants to know and wants to get better. So I think that’s the good dynamic between her and Sascha actually because she’s always asking questions and listening and he’s really teaching her like a student.”
Osaka is “grateful” for Sillah, and the work he’s put in with her.
“Abdul really helped me with letting me believe in the fact that I can play long matches, and I’m okay with that because I don’t really get tired,” she said in Melbourne this week.
There seems to be great chemistry between all the members on Osaka’s team, especially that Bajin and Sillah have known each other for a long time, since the days when they were both in Serena’s camp.
“We were like brothers in a way, we got along pretty good, we had great chemistry and we fed off each other,” recalls Sillah.
Bajin hopes their partnership continues as Osaka keeps going from strength to strength.
“It’s easier to work with somebody you’ve known for so long because then they know you as a person and they know how you think, how you click. You can work together without having to say too much,” Bajin told Sport360.
“Thank God that we have Abdul on the team now and that the parents listened to my recommendation. I think he’s been a very valuable asset to us and hopefully we can have many more years together with everybody on the team.”
While Sillah acknowledges the progress Osaka has made fitness-wise, he believes the main catalyst behind her success was more mental than physical.
“More than anything, I think it was more mental progress. I believe for anyone to become a champion, not a winner, but a champion, mentally they have to be prepared and stronger than anybody else. And that’s what I’ve always talked to her about,” he adds.
“You can prepare someone physically as much as you want, but eventually they will get to a wall and how do you get them over that wall? If psychologically and mentally they’re not prepared, they will never get over that wall, which means they can’t conquer adversity. And only through struggle can we make progress.”
Osaka has certainly had her fair share of struggles this fortnight in Melbourne en route to the final – her second consecutive at a Grand Slam. Can she overcome one last hurdle when she takes to the court against Petra Kvitova on Saturday? We’ll find out soon.
In the middle of telling a joke 😫 pic.twitter.com/85ZkO7RoQ5
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@Naomi_Osaka_) March 17, 2018
Kimiko Date, the last Japanese woman to reach the Australian Open semi-finals prior to Naomi Osaka’s run this fortnight, has hailed the 21-year-old’s progress over the past 12 months and is happy to see a countrywoman excel on the sport’s biggest stages.
Osaka became the first Japanese player – man or woman – to win a Grand Slam when she lifted the US Open trophy last September, stunning Serena Williams in the final.
Born in Osaka to a Haitian father and Japanese mother, Osaka has lived in the United States since she was three years old and has fans in all corners of the globe.
She is attempting to reach a second consecutive Grand Slam final when she takes on Karolina Pliskova in Thursday’s semi and is in contention for the world No. 1 ranking this tournament.
If she manages to book a spot in the final against Petra Kvitova, the winner of that match would be the new world No. 1.
Date made the Australian final in Melbourne in 1994 and is a former world No. 4, who retired from tennis in 2017, aged 47. Currently in Melbourne doing media work for Japanese TV channel Wowow, Date discussed Osaka’s rising popularity in Japan.
“Of course it’s good for Japanese tennis. She grew up in the States but everybody is so happy and we support her a lot,” Date told Sport360.
“So many people are following. Now I’m working for Wowow TV and so many people are tuning in and watching. Now she’s very famous in Japan.”
Osaka is making history for Japan with every new achievement on the tour and Date is impressed with how the youngster has been handling it all.
“I think she is under so much pressure but she manages to control it,” said Date.
“She has so much power and speed and now she knows how to play with it, and is patient on court. She has had some good comebacks this week which shows she has improved a lot mentally.”
Osaka fought back from a set down in the third round against Hsieh Su-Wei, and against Anastasija Sevastova in the fourth round and will be bidding for a seventh top-10 victory of her career when she squares off with Pliskova on Thursday.
Serena Williams stepped up to the baseline to serve for a place in the Australian Open semi-finals, up 5-1 in the decider against Karolina Pliskova.
She’s one hold away from a rematch with Naomi Osaka in the final four. She hits a 161km/hr serve and the tall Pliskova reaches wide and slams down a forehand return winner. Williams applauds the shot to go down 0/15. The American then aces for 15/15. Pliskova hits a deep backhand return on her opponent’s second serve in the next point, which ends with a forced backhand error from Williams. 15/30.
Williams aces to make it 30/30. The American gets her first match point with another service winner. The crowd starts to cheer, it’s 4-6, 6-4, 5-1, 40-30. Williams is one point away from the semis. She unleashes a 180km/hr serve but the line judge calls a foot fault, for the first time in the match. On her second serve, Williams rolls her ankle and loses the match point on a netted forehand error. Deuce.
She double-faults on the next point giving Pliskova a break point. Williams didn’t win another point on serve after that, losing the game, and the following five in a row to lose 6-4, 4-6, 7-5.
Pliskova saved four match points in total and broke Williams at love twice to secure what she describes as “the best comeback ever so far in my life”.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 23, 2019
Only in tennis can something as tiny as a foot fault – a call we rarely encounter in the sport – change the course of a match in such a dramatic way.
Williams refused to use her ankle roll as an excuse, but it surely affected her while serving considering she never won a point on serve after that moment.
Huge credit to Pliskova though for starting the match in such commanding fashion and bringing out her best – Williams described it as “lights-out tennis” – when she needed it the most. A one-legged Serena can defeat a lot of players if all she needs is one game. But Pliskova made it impossible for the American to do that.
It may seem cruel to some to see Williams’ quest for an all-time record-equalling 24th Grand Slam end like this, but it’s also lovely to see Pliskova showcase her capabilities on the sport’s biggest stages once again.
This is how she explains why she doesn’t tend to get intimidated by facing Williams.
“Before the match, this time I really believed, like, it’s still a player, I know she’s the greatest ever, but I don’t want to put her somewhere where I would not have a chance to beat her. I beat her before. She was No. 1 at that time. I knew I’m going to have my chances. But I had to play well,” explained Pliskova.
Williams has now lost two Grand Slam finals and a semi-final since she returned from maternity leave 10 months ago. She is determined to match Margaret Court’s all-time record and admitted in press that her attention will automatically shift to her next opportunity, which is Roland Garros.
At 5-1 down in the third set against Serena Williams, @KaPliskova‘s mind was in the locker room…
Somehow she ended up in the #AusOpen semifinals.
This is how. pic.twitter.com/O8IpYeh27D
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 23, 2019
Petra Kvitova and Ashleigh Barty have proven to us time and time again that win or lose, they are two of the classiest athletes across all sport.
They just provided us with another reminder this week when they faced off in the quarter-finals.
It was a rematch of their Sydney final from earlier this month but unlike that match, their Melbourne showdown was a one-sided affair with Kvitova cruising past Barty in straight sets.
After the match, Barty paid full credit to Kvitova, who just two years ago was unsure whether she’d be able to play tennis again after getting attacked and stabbed in her left playing hand by an intruder in her apartment in Prague.
“She’s amazing. She’s an amazing human being. I think she’s beginning to play her best tennis again. I was fortunate enough to play her in one of her first tournaments back in Birmingham a couple years ago,” said the 22-year-old Australian.
“We all know what Petra can do. She’s a Grand Slam champion. She’s proved she can beat the best, be very close to the best. I think she’s been No. 2 in the world before. She’s certainly got the game and the attitude to be able to take it to anyone.
“But most importantly, I think from all of the girls in the locker room, it’s amazing just to see her back out here. It wasn’t the same when she wasn’t here.”
Gracious words from Barty, especially after a tough loss on home soil.
Kvitova said of her opponent in her press conference: “Ash is great. She’s a great person and great player, as she showed. I think it’s not really easy to play quarterfinal of the slams at home. I know the pressure when I’m playing home, as well. It’s not easy.
“She really played unbelievable tennis today, as well. I mean, her slice was two centimetres under the net. It was really incredible what she been through whole tournament. Yeah, I’m a bit sorry for her that I beat her. But that’s the tennis, unfortunately.”
Surprise semi-finalist Danielle Collins’ cousin flew all the way from Minnesota to be in her box for her quarter-final match against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. How cool is that?
“My cousin is here, very close with her. She’s one of my closest family members. She flew all the way from Minnesota today. She said, ‘I don’t know if I’ll make it in time for your match’. I said, ‘I think you can make it’. She put everything together, got on a plane and got here,” revealed Collins.
0 – wins for Lucas Pouille from his five previous appearance at the Australian Open. He’s now into the semi-finals.
1 – Naomi Osaka is the first Japanese woman since Kimiko Date in 1994 to reach the Australian Open semis.
2 – service games dropped by Rafael Nadal throughout his first five matches.
3 – female coaches are in the semis in Melbourne, Conchita Martinez and Rennae Stubbs with Pliskova, and Amelie Mauresmo with Pouille.
15 – unforced errors struck by Pliskova against Williams across three sets.
16 – wins and one loss, Conchita Martinez’ record as a coach/co-coach at Grand Slams with Garbine Muguruza and Pliskova.
58 – Osaka has now won 58 consecutive matches when winning the first set. Last player to defeat her after losing the first set to her was Svetlana Kuznetsova in the Tianjin quarters in 2016.
79 – per cent, Pliskova’s first-serve percentage against Williams. Clutch!
80 – per cent, Nadal’s success rate on his first serve points so far this tournament.
89 – aces struck by Stefanos Tsitsipas so far this event, the highest tally among the four remaining semi-finalists.