Poker-face Osaka captures first WTA title at the BNP Paribas Open

Our Karen Helf is finalizing her visit to Indian Wells with a report about the final between 20-year-olds Naomi Osaka and Daria Kasatkina.

On a chilly desert morning, I wore a sweater to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden for the first time. The skies were calm, but the pressure was heating up. With a slight edge on paper, Daria Kasatkina took center stage at 11:00 AM. With a superior ranking, she stepped on court after Naomi Osaka. While Osaka stumbled with words today, her racquet skills were spot-on. The Japanese played a brand of brave tennis, taking risks, making some errors and ripping winners. In just over one hour, she won the biggest match of her career for a Premier Mandatory title and earned a significant financial reward.

The world No.44 Osaka opened the match with several second serves and virtually handed over the first break. The 20-year-old discussed nerves in press, stating she was faking being calm and did not settle down until 4-1 in the second set.

With short-term memory loss, Osaka stepped up, immediately breaking back. After a series of holds, the score was even, 3-3. However, Osaka showed signs of pulling ahead with bigger serves, controlling more points and generally going for more. Commentators described Kasatkina as retrieving rather than attacking the ball. With this dynamic, Osaka pulled the trigger at 4-3. Despite four first serves from Kasatkina, Osaka broke to 5-3. Bringing big serves with Kasatkina receiving well behind the baseline, Osaka captured the hold in five points. First set Osaka, 6-3.

Second-set play resumed as coaches Sascha Bajin and Phillipe Dehaes left the court. Kasatkina’s coach urged her to remember it was about her, what was in her heart and not to be passive. Those words could not inspire change today.

Osaka kept up the pace, playing freely, while her opponent began to unravel. The top-spin from Kasatkina’s early-round matches was absent today. She double-faulted on the final point of her first service game. This moment was particularly notable as Osaka had now won four game in a row. The Japanese continued controlling points to hold 2-0. Kasatkina was back on serve, playing what must have felt like a must-win game. The world No.19 missed a lob dropshot, then a forehand winner. Osaka’s next ball flew and she shot a glance to her box for the first time in the match. Despite her ripping a baseline winner, Kasatkina held with an ace.

Osaka came up with two aces to hold, 3-1 and continued playing brave tennis, while Kasatkina could not adjust to change the momentum. Osaka produced a love hold to 5-1. Showing her determination and fighting spirit, Kasatkina held, but Osaka had too much latitude and power. Following a double-fault, second serve wobbles, a 118 MPH ace followed by a loud “Come on”, Osaka held for the match, 6-2.

With the victory, Osaka will be inside the Top 25 on Monday. Kasatkina will have to wait to make her arrival in the Top 10. Key Biscayne presents a new opportunity just around the corner.

Kasatkina described Osaka’s game this way:

She’s very powerful. She’s serving good, doesn’t have weaknesses. She’s hitting her forehand, backhand. Basically, she was much better today than me, so she really deserved to win. I think we were both nervous at the beginning, because the biggest finals so far. But, during the match she was able to manage her nerves and stuff, and I was still a little bit tight.

An interesting twist is that these two opponents will team up to travel to their next tournament, the Miami Open. Kasatkina explained it this way:

Yeah, we share the private jet with Naomi. (Hand sign – “Rock on.”) First time in my life.

On the way to Miami, Osaka is hoping to chat with Kasatkina. She already has a plan.

I’m going to try not to listen to music, so I’m going to see if she’s going to talk to me, because — I’m going to see how that works out (smiling). But it’s not like you can talk to anyone in an airplane, anyway. So that’s — yeah. I don’t know where I went with that.

Arriving to press, the win had not quite sunk for Osaka and she opened by saying:

Okay, here we go. I think towards the end, I didn’t know that I won the match point. So then I was sort of, like, Caveman SpongeBob. But I don’t know. I don’t really know what’s going on right now (smiling). I really feel like I have another match I have to play tomorrow, and it didn’t really sink in that I won. So, yeah, I’m just trying to, like, “Woohoo” (pointing to trophy). I’m happy.

The on-court acceptance speeches reflected player experience in the winners circle. Kasatkina showed amazing poise and maturity, congratulating Osaka and closing with an inspirational message for everyone in the stadijum:

Never give up dream and do it! Let’s say I’m living by this sentence: “Dream and do it.” That’s it.

The youngest BNP Paribas Open winner since 2008, the 20-year-old Osaka stumbled, but her humble, genuine words were endearing. A self-proclaimed critic, she thanked her team for “putting up with her” and exclaiming this was “the worse acceptance speech of all time.” But the speech reflected her tennis journey. This quiet Japanese seemed to have come from out of nowhere to excel. Of course, the journey is not what it appears. Osaka has put in the work, blood, sweat and tears. Racquet in hand, she earned her prize. Surely this is the first of many victories and speech-making will be a well-honed skill in the near future.

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3 thoughts on “Poker-face Osaka captures first WTA title at the BNP Paribas Open

  1. C

    Congrats Naomi! Happy she’s got a title under her belt now, and an impressive tournament to do it at. Her speech was hilariously awkward, as an introvert I can relate to her stumbling and general personality (I’m certainly less funny though). I wish people weren’t so hard on her for it (not that I’ve seen that many mean comments). Looking forward to her match with Serena in Miami 😮

    Daria is doing well, her Top 10 debut will come soon.

  2. Karen

    Naomi has a great personality. She’s genuine and interesting however she delivers her message. Over time, she will become more polished but my hope is she will remain true to herself. I really did not see people being harsh but moreover describing the experiences interacting with her. At least that was my intent. She’s a gem as well as Daria. Both great for the WTA tour and Tennis.

  3. Karen

    Side Note: Miami Draw 1st Round Naomi Osaka vs. Serena Williams Naomi spoke of dreaming about beating Serena. Well dreams can come true.

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