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Tennis: Composure on big stage fuels Osaka's rise to top

Japan's Naomi Osaka makes a backhand return to Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic during the women's singles final at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, on Jan. 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Naomi Osaka's rapid rise to world No. 1 has been marked by her ability to deliver on the biggest stages.

    Winner of back-to-back Grand Slams following her 7-6(2), 5-7, 6-4 victory Saturday over the Czech Republic's Petra Kvitova at the Australian Open, the 21-year-old is undefeated in major finals.

    By beating No. 8 seed Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon winner with 26 career singles titles, No. 4 seed Osaka guaranteed her ascent to top spot when the new WTA rankings are announced next week.

    Since making her Grand Slam main draw debut at the same venue in Melbourne two years ago, Osaka has cemented herself among the elite and shown signs of becoming a dominant force for years to come.

    She easily dispatched fellow up-and-comer Daria Kasatkina of Russia to win her maiden title in Indian Wells last March, but it was her victory over Serena Williams in the U.S. Open final six months later that announced her arrival at the top echelon.

    With a clinical dismantling of her childhood idol and arguably the greatest player of all time, Osaka showed she would not be overawed by the occasion.

    The victory made her the first Japanese player, man or woman, to win a Grand Slam singles title. A month later, she climbed to world No. 4 to equal the highest-ever standing by a Japanese player, after having started the year at 68.

    Although the U.S. Open result was overshadowed by controversy, with Williams penalized for a verbal tirade at the chair umpire, Osaka focused on the positives when she subsequently arrived in Japan to a hero's welcome ahead of her participation in the Pan Pacific Open.

    "I feel really happy and I know that I accomplished a lot," she said. "I don't feel sad (about the incident) because I wouldn't even know what to expect to feel, since it was my first (Grand Slam) final and first Grand Slam victory."

    Eventually finishing runner-up to Karolina Pliskova at the Pan Pacific, held close on the heels of the U.S. Open, Osaka said it nevertheless "felt really special" playing as a Grand Slam winner in front of her Japanese fans in Tokyo.

    Born in Japan and raised in the United States by her Japanese mother and Haitian father, Osaka, along with her older sister Mari, was groomed for a tennis career from a young age.

    Her father Leonard Francois took inspiration from Richard Williams, the father of Serena and Venus, who taught his daughters to play tennis despite having no previous background in the sport himself.

    One of just a handful of women to break the 200 kilometer-per-hour barrier with her serve, the 1.8-meter Osaka brings a level of physicality that few players on the circuit can match.

    On her way to defeating Pliskova in the Australian Open semis, Osaka hit 56 winners to the No. 7 seed's 20. She also sent down 15 aces as she recorded her 13th straight win at a major.

    An aggressive baseline player, Osaka worked hard to improve the mental aspect of her game with her coach Sascha Bajin during her breakthrough 2018 season.

    But her on-court dynamism is offset by a down-to-earth charm that has also contributed to her winning legions of fans from around the world.

    While many of her peers approach tennis with a hypercompetitive demeanor, Osaka has endeared herself to fans and the media with her cheerfulness and sense of humor, using her post-match interviews to profess her love for videogames or Japanese food including the fried pork dish "katsu-don."

    Asked if she saw herself as a role model following her U.S. Open win, Osaka said young players should enjoy themselves but joked that they should model themselves on someone else.

    "Tennis is a game, and I mean, always try your best, but don't look up to me because I don't want that responsibility," she said.

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