If something magical happens to Naomi Osaka when she steps onto a hard court, that spell is broken as soon as she shifts onto clay or grass. It is like watching Cinderella’s graceful coach-and-horses turn back into a pumpkin.
So as we digest the aftermath of Osaka’s latest major title – which she claimed by overwhelming Jennifer Brady in straight sets on Saturday – much of the debate is about her chances of extending that form into Europe this spring.
Osaka’s 6-4, 6-3 win left her with four titles from the last six hard-court slams. Serena Williams – whose athleticism and aggression she consciously emulates – has twice achieved the same statistic in her own career.
But the difference is that Williams is more of an allrounder, posting win rates of 85 per cent on hard courts, 83 per cent on clay and 88 per cent on grass. For Osaka, the figures stand at 69 per cent, 60 per cent, and 52 per cent respectively.
The upshot is that she will need to find fresh inspiration – not to mention new tactics and techniques – if she is to be a threat at Wimbledon. And the same goes for the French Open. At 23 years old, Osaka has yet to reach the second week in either tournament.
Asked about this discrepancy on Saturday, Osaka suggested that her decision not to participate in the junior tour had created a major gap in her education. “I didn't grow up playing on grass at all,” she explained.
But then, the Williams sisters didn’t play juniors either. And this didn’t prevent Serena from reaching the semi-final of Wimbledon at the second attempt, where she lost to the eventual champion Venus.
The real difference is that Richard Williams and his coaching expert Rick Macci taught the sisters to volley from an early age. Whereas Osaka tends not to come to the net unless the rest of the court is on fire.
In an interview with the Netherlands’ TENNiS magazine last year, Osaka’s Belgian coach Wim Fissette said that “transitioning to the net” has always been her biggest tactical weakness. “She has never really done that and it remains a difficult subject. But she wants to improve it step by step.”
Osaka is a devastating hitter from the baseline. Her fast hands, her explosive movement and her steely-eyed self-belief make her a true inheritor of Serena’s mantle. But she doesn’t slice, and she volleys so rarely that no-one is quite sure how she hits the shot: does she still use two hands on the backhand side?
After her win over Brady, the Eurosport pundit Mats Wilander suggested that “I think she has 10 [majors] in her, minimum. She moves really well, she’s so strong and she doesn’t look like she can get hurt very easily.”
If Wilander is right, Osaka will become the sixth woman to reach double figures in the Open era (after Serena Williams, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Margaret Court). But joining that group will be much harder if she can only compete for two majors per season.
“My goal is to be consistent this year,” Osaka said. “Not to have a huge drop-off randomly in the middle section like June, July, how I usually do.”
Should she achieve her goal of contending across the board, that might be a bigger achievement – and more significant in the long term – than anything she has done in Melbourne this fortnight.