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Lesson To Learned From Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka wearing a mask branded for the tribute to George Floyd. Photo: Getty
Is there a lesson to be learned from Naomi Osaka’s 79-minute, 6-3, 6-4, no fuss, no muss, quarterfinal win over Shelby Rogers on Tuesday night? It might be put like this: Power is great, but compact power is much better.

Osaka and Rogers hit the ball with a similar amount of pace from the baseline. Both can drill blazing winners with their returns when they're setting behind the baseline, and especially when they have time to set up and move forward. But Osaka generates her pace with quicker, more compact swings than Rogers, and that makes all the difference.

When Osaka hit a penetrating shot tonight, Rogers had trouble getting around on it, and often had to back up to give herself more time. When Rogers hit a penetrating shot, Osaka was much more likely to be ready for it, to take it without backing up, and to counter it with something just as good, especially when she was on the run. That difference was summed up in a pair of stats: Osaka hit just one more winner than Rogers (24 to 23), but she made 19 fewer errors (eight to 27).

It would have been tough for anyone, no matter how long or short her swing, or how well she hit the ball on the move, to beat Osaka tonight. Since dropping a set, and slamming her racquet, in her third-round win over Marta Kostyuk, Osaka has grown sharper and stronger with virtually every game she’s played. While she made just 48 percent of her first serves on Tuesday, she won 83 percent of them, and faced only one break point (which she lost). Rogers won just 24 percent of points on her return of serve.

“I feel pretty good,” Osaka said, which is the height of braggadocio for her. “A couple of hard matches made me grateful to be here.” Osaka was favored to win in most people minds, except, perhaps, hers. “I felt like she had the upper hand because I had never beaten her,” said Osaka, who was 0-3 against Rogers. She said she was happy to use her desire for “revenge” as a source of motivation.

Another source of motivation, or at least satisfaction, for Osaka is the fact that, with every win, she has a chance to wear another mask with the name of another African-American recently killed by law enforcement—tonight she wore George Floyd’s name. Osaka said at the start of the tournament that she had seven masks, and her goal was to show us all seven.

Rather than adding pressure, her embrace of activism this summer seems to have focused her and given her an added sense of purpose. There are two more masks to show, two more Black Americans to memorialize, and two more matches to win.
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