Naomi Osaka lights up the way for next generation of female tennis stars

Naomi Osaka: Celebrations at the Australian Open
Naomi Osaka: Celebrations at the Australian Open

If the time has come for Serena Williams finally to pass the torch onto the next generation, then it is only fitting that Naomi Osaka is the recipient.

The 21-year-old will contest her second straight grand slam final when she takes on Petra Kvitova in the Australian Open decider on Saturday, the first woman since Jennifer Capriati to follow a maiden title by reaching the final of the next major tournament.

By the time Capriati achieved the feat, winning in Melbourne and Paris, she was already into her second career, so two other women offer better parallels.

Venus Williams won back-to-back titles at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2000, and won the same titles the following year, while Martina Hingis reached five straight slam finals from the Australian Open in 1997, winning four of them.

But it is Serena to whom Osaka seems inextricably linked; not just for the fact the young Japanese star grew up idolising the American, the similarities in their games or the US Open final they shared that will never be forgotten, but for the fact Osaka is literally following in Williams' footsteps.

Born in Osaka to father Leonard Francois, from Haiti, and mother Tamaki Osaka, she was only a year old when Williams won her first slam title in New York in 1999.

Osaka's family later moved to the Big Apple, where she attended the US Open as a fan hoping to catch a glimpse of her idol, and then Fort Lauderdale in Florida.

Francois had been inspired to teach tennis to his daughters - Osaka's older sister, Mari, is also a professional, although as yet without anything like the success of her sibling - after seeing the Williams sisters at the 1999 French Open.

"The blueprint was already there," he told the New York Times in August. "I just had to follow it."

Osaka admits at difficult times in matches she asks herself, 'What would Serena do?', but even Williams may have struggled to produce some of the tennis Osaka has shown this tournament.

The power, of course, grabs the attention but it has been Osaka's poise at the biggest moments that has really impressed here and her determination to find a way to win.

What marks the great champions is not just their remarkable abilities with a racket but the way they are motivated both by successes and disappointments, and there appears no doubt Osaka has that.

In an era where many players have made a breakthrough but very few have backed it up, Osaka has made it look like the most natural thing in the world.

Her grand slam record from the very start hinted that she would thrive on the big stage, with only one first-round loss - at the French Open in 2017 - but consistency on the regular tour was an issue and she began last season ranked 68th.

The first - and so far only - WTA Tour title of her career at Indian Wells last March was a major step forward and signalled Osaka was ready to hit the heights expected of her.

Victory on Saturday and she will have the world number one ranking to go with two grand slam titles. There can be no doubt, Naomi Osaka is the real deal.

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