By Jane Voigt
March 18, 2018 — Naomi Osaka won her maiden title today, defeating Daria Kasatkina 6-3, 6-2 in the women’s singles final of the BNP Paribas Open. The match was a battle of 20-year-olds on the biggest stage outside of a Grand Slam. But Osaka’s breakthrough into the upper echelon of women’s tennis isn’t really the story.
The story is that their generation has arrived, that youth triumphed and blew away the formidable competition both women faced on the way to today’s final at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
Nothing typified their age as the acceptance speech from Osaka, who is known to be shy, reserved and wary of the spotlight.
“I’m new … (giggles) … I’d like to thank Daria for being super nice … (giggles). I also want to thank Daria’s team because they’re super nice, too. (Looks down for seconds.) Um, I’d like to thank my team for putting up with me. I’d like to thank Sasha [Alexsandar Bajan, her coach] and my dad who’s not here. What did I forget? Oh, and I’d like to thank my sponsors … what did I forget … and the umpires and ball kids; they are super awesome. This is gonna be the worse acceptance speech of all time. I think that’s it. Thanks very much.”
And with that lovely display of authenticity Naomi Osaka introduced herself to sports, after a dazzling display of clean, powerful and mentally-competent tennis.
“So solid. So deliberate. Great footwork,” Chrissie Evert said, calling the match alongside Chris Fowler for ESPN. “She has the focus.”
“She’s no longer a promise for the future, but someone who has arrived in 2018,” Fowler added.
Osaka showed poise when down break points, a signpost of a champion, saving 3 out of 4. Two of those saves were aces. Additionally, she finished the match with a confident down the line backhand swinging volley.
“I don’t think I will reset my goals,” Osaka told Shriver, when asked about revising her plans for the year. “I just want to focus one point at a time. [I] don’t really mind where my ranking is.”
Osaka earned $1.3 million USD, which almost doubles her total prize money to date. She will rise from No. 49 to a career high No. 22 tomorrow. She also became the youngest champion since Ana Ivanovic in 2008 to win the title. And she is only the fourth woman to win this tournament without being seeded.
But it was her route to the final that’s a tale not often told for a player her age. In the first round she defeated former Indian Wells champion Maria Sharapova. In round two Osaka defeated another Indian Wells champion (2014) and former number one, Agnieszka Radwanska. In the round of 32, American wildcard Sachia Vickery fell. In round four Maria Sakkari lost in three — the only 3-set match Osaka played in the tournament. Then, she blew out Karolina Pliskova (No. 5) who was a back-to-back quarterfinalist. And, as icing on the cake, Osaka demolished the top seed, number-one player in the world and 2015 champion Simona Halep, 6-3, 6-0.
“If you try and believe in yourself you can win,” Osaka told Pam Shriver, after the awards’ presentation.
Kasatkina (No. 29) and Osaka were evenly matched coming in to the final although their styles differ. Osaka is more of baseline player with a powerful serve and wicked forehand. Kasatkina brought a multifaceted bag of tactics, spins and a jumping backhand that sizzles.
But Kasatkina’s biggest asset — her fighting spirit — didn’t show up today. She camped out way behind the baseline, played too defensively and was slower off the mark than she had been throughout the tournament.
“She’s not accelerating the racquet head,” Evert pointed out, during the second set when Kasatkina had wracked up 15 unforced errors to 7 winners. Kasatkina even mishit a sitting, swinging forehand volley, a snapshot of her disappointing tennis for the day.
“Thank you to my team,” Kasatkina said, during awards, tears coming to her eyes. “The last thing I want to tell you, never give up, believe in your dreams. Just keep going, dream and do it.”
Both women will travel to southern Florida for the Miami Open. The draw comes out tomorrow.