Naomi Osaka has rapidly risen to become the champion of the post-millennial generation.
Fresh off ascending to the peak of the tennis world, Naomi Osaka awkwardly walked up to the microphone.
"Hello!" she said, drawing a laugh from the crowd. "Public speaking isn't really my strong side. I just hope I can get through this."
But what else was she going to say? After the controversy of her first Grand Slam final—and the ugliness of the boos at her first trophy presentation—her tennis spoke for her in the grueling 7-6 (2), 5-7, 6-4 match she won over Petra Kvitova. Osaka survived a nervy implosion in the second set and won the first and third ones with polished brilliance.
Her backhand returns neutralized her Czech opponent's feared lefty serve out wide. Her defensive efforts and movement stymied all of Kvitova's attempts to find rhythm in the decider. And she always found a way to summon her devasating serve-forehand combination when she needed a point most. After that display of power tennis, a simple, chipper "hello" would need to suffice for the millions of fans watching worldwide.
"Thanks to my team. I really don't think I would've made it through this week without you guys," she said. "I read notes before this but I still forgot the rest of what I was supposed to say..."
ROUNDTABLE: Previewing the Australian Open Men's Final
Naomi Osaka is Generation Z's champion. When she won her first big title in Indian Wells last year, she compared herself to "Caveman Spongebob" and spent the next few months posting about Overwatch. Three years ago, she spoke about her goals before the Australian Open:
"I want to be the very best," she said. "Like no one ever was."
To everyone who just hummed the rest of the song, yes, that is from the Pokémon theme song. Social scientists continue to search for a precise year to mark the difference between the millennials and Generation Z, but for tennis fans, it may as well be Naomi Osaka's birthdate. The next global superstar has arrived.
In one year, Osaka has risen from No. 72 in the world to No. 1. With this win, she has finally put an end to women's tennis' chaotic two seasons since Serena Williams went on maternity leave. Since the 2017 Australian Open until Saturday, the last eight Grand Slams had been won by eight different women. Now, after two years of burgeoning stars and bewildering upsets, the sport has a woman ready to lead from the top.
Saturday's final saw the best and worst of Osaka's game. In the first set and for much of the second, her play was effortless. Kvitova played two weeks worthy of a title, but Osaka found a way to be a little bit better. After a tense first set filled with missed break opportunities, Osaka began the tiebreak with a punishing serve and a beautiful backhand return winner down the line. She would eventually win the breaker 7-2 and survived an early push from Kvitova to eventually go up a break in the second.
With Kvitova down 0-40 at 3-5, and Osaka staring at three championship points, her coronation looked assured. But then nerves crept in, and Kvitova reeled off a dazzling string of points, saving the first match point with a crushing winner and then winning four more to save the game. A comeback was almost expected of Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion with the affectionate nickname P3tra for her tendency to come back. Just over two years removed from the home invasion and knife attack that nearly ended her career, Kvitova played fearlessly, and it paid off. The Czech broke Osaka in the next game and then held easily for 6-5. Osaka, unable to keep her emotions in check, double faulted the set away.
It was, make no mistake, a stunning collapse. For most young players, blowing a huge lead against a veteran in a Grand Slam would mean certain doom. It happened to Elina Svitolina at the 2017 French Open. It happened to Naomi Osaka herself in the third round of the 2016 U.S. Open, when she went up 5-1 and lost five straight games and the match to Madison Keys. But Osaka calmed down. She picked up an early break in the third set, erased a chance for Kvitova to break back at 4-3 with a booming serve, and then served out the match.
For Kvitova, the loss will sting, but she must be proud to have returned to a Grand Slam final regardless of the result. Even in the loss, Kvitova moves to a new career high of world No. 2. She is well-positioned to make a serious run at the elusive No. 1 ranking in the next few months.
"Thank you to [to my team] for sticking with me even if we didn't know if I would be able to hold a racquet again," Kvitova said.
The big-swinging Czech suffered disappointing early exits at Grand Slams in 2018 despite winning five titles on the year. She started 2019 with a win at the Sydney International. Given how well the 28-year-old is playing—somehow she's been even more consistent since the comeback—she's going to be a serious force for the rest of 2019. Although this was their first meeting, it's easy to see Kvitova and Osaka battling at the top for years to come.
But it's hard to see Osaka falling away like Jelena Ostapenko or Garbiñe Muguruza did after their Slam glory. With back-to-back Slams and an Indian Wells title, she's already the most decorated Asian woman in tennis history. It was only fitting for Asia's biggest star of the previous generation, two-time Grand Slam champion Li Na, to be present on the stage as Osaka became the first Asian woman to reach No. 1 in the world.
Much has been made of Osaka's cross-cultural appeal. She will almost assuredly go into the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo as Japan's biggest superstar. Her roots in Florida also give her an easy path to American stardom as well. If Generation Z truly is the age of the Instagram influencer and the personal brand, Osaka is the Chosen One. Her candid demeanor, easygoing personality and blistering tennis transcend the old ways of stodgy tennis federations and players spouting corporate jargon in lieu of authenticity. She was not afraid to publicly call out her sponsor Nissin this week for portraying her as pale-skinned in an anime-themed advertisement. The company pulled the ad.
Just as Serena Williams, the last woman to win back-to-back Grand Slams, became the queen of a millennial generation's yearning for empowerment and self-belief, Osaka could succeed her as the queen of whatever Generation Z becomes. She has already been open about her mental health struggles, a welcome tune for a generation more aware of mental wellness than any before it. She's charming, open and chill in a way that other tennis players aren't. She has more than earned the right to be her slightly awkward and self-aware self.
And from a tennis perspective, the changeover is almost complete. Serena has outlasted 20 years worth of rivals, but she will not outlast this lovable 21-year-old superstar. The older generation will put up a fight, as Kvitova did tonight, and perhaps even win sometimes, but their time is fading like the proverbial Melbourne sun. There's almost no need to compare the two (Serena and Naomi) anymore. For the rest of 2019 and her career, Osaka is going to be in her own, different, younger spotlight. Her victory tonight ensured this new paradigm.