By Richard Pagliaro
A familiar face wearing an inviting smile inspired Naomi Osaka’s surge to her second Australian Open title.
If you watched Osaka’s pre-match walk through the AO’s tunnel of champions en route to Rod Laver Arena, you’ve seen her tap the super-sized poster of her younger self without breaking stride.
In the aftermath of her 6-4, 6-3 victory over Jennifer Brady in the AO final, Osaka said touching the image of her younger self was both superstitious ritual—and her way of drawing power from her past.
“I would say it definitely is a good luck charm,” said Osaka after scoring her 21st straight victory. “When I walk through the tunnel and see my name on the board, I just feel really inspired, like, I want to have another, you know, another year added to that board.
“I think just touching it, it lets me feel like I get more power. Maybe it’s a bit more of a superstition, as well.”
The four-time Grand Slam champion is now within touching distance of equaling five-time major champions Martina Hingis and Maria Sharapova on the all-time Grand Slam list.
Hall of Famer Mats Wilander predicts the 23-year-old Osaka is capable of winning 10 or more Grand Slam titles.
Osaka says she’s flattered by the faith of a fellow Slam champion, but not enamored of playing the numbers game.
“For right now, I’m trying to go for five. You know, after five I would think about maybe dividing the ten, so maybe seven or eight,” Osaka said. “I like to take things not big-picture. For me, I like to live in the moment. You know, it’s an honor that he said that, of course. But I don’t want to weigh myself down with pressure and expectations.
“I know that the people that I’m playing against are the best players in the world, and, you know, if my time comes to win another Grand Slam, it will come.
“But for right now I can only control what I can control, and that’s working hard and giving myself opportunities.”
Asked her ultimate goal, Osaka says she’s aiming for the staying power to touch lives.
“Me, I feel like the biggest thing that I want to achieve is — this is going to sound really odd, but hopefully I play long enough to play a girl that said that I was once her favorite player or something,” Osaka said. “For me, I think that’s the coolest thing that could ever happen to me. I think I have those feelings of, you know, watching my favorite players. Unfortunately I didn’t get to play Li Na, but, yeah, I just think that that’s how the sport moves forward.”
Photo credit: Australian Open Facebook