Australian Open: Softly spoken Osaka now a ruthless machine

By Sports Desk February 20, 2021

"I know that everyone was cheering for [Serena Williams] and I'm sorry it had to end like this. I want to say thank you for watching the match."

Naomi Osaka's first grand slam title was memorable for all the wrong reasons - the Japanese left in tears after defeating her idol Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open final.

Williams was penalised for receiving coaching, slamming her racquet and then arguing with the chair umpire, which cost the 23-time slam champion a game in the second set.

The mood on Arthur Ashe Stadium turned bitter as fans booed during the trophy ceremony.

"I just felt like everyone was sort of unhappy up there," Osaka told the 'Today' show a day after the final. "I know that it wasn't really – the ending wasn't how people wanted it to be. I know that in my dreams I won in a very tough, competitive match. I don't know. I just felt very emotional. I felt like I had to apologise.

"I felt a little bit sad, because I wasn't really sure if they were booing at me or if it wasn't the outcome that they wanted. I also could sympathise, because I've been a fan of Serena my whole life, and I knew how badly the crowd wanted her to win."

Almost three years on and three further slam titles later, that softly-spoken Osaka is now a ruthless machine, just ask Williams.

En route to a fourth slam crown and second Australian Open trophy on Saturday, Osaka overpowered the 23-time major champion in the semi-finals, stopping her ongoing record-equalling quest flat in its tracks.

The queen of women's tennis for so long, Williams could not find a way to beat Osaka.

The here and now, Osaka continues to be Williams' kryptonite in the American superstar's bid match Margaret Court. It could explain why Serena was left in tears and cut short her post-match news conference.

There appears to be no way past Osaka.

Usually timid away from the action, Osaka is ferocious on court but just as calm - her triumphant 2021 Australian Open campaign further proof of that, having saved a pair of match points in the last 16 before topping Jennifer Brady on Rod Laver Arena, where she became the first woman since Monica Seles in the early 1990s to emerge victorious from the first four grand slam finals of her career. 

Lets not forget her anti-racism statements during the last year's US Open. The 23-year-old regularly wore masks onto court to protest against racial injustice in the United States. Osaka's off-court impact is just as powerful across the globe.

As the sun begins to fade on the career of an all-time great, Osaka has the world at her feet in an exciting new era for women's tennis.

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  • Is Chelsea new-boy Enzo Fernandez worth over £100million? Is Chelsea new-boy Enzo Fernandez worth over £100million?

    Football can feel like a Formula One race at times, with things moving so rapidly that if you blink for a second, you could miss something.

    For example, few would have been able to predict six months ago that in January 2023, a player called Enzo Fernandez would be joining Chelsea for a British-record transfer fee of £106.8million (€121m).

    Not even many Benfica fans knew much about the midfielder when he arrived from River Plate for a reported fee of €12m in July.

    Fernandez had been making a name for himself in his home country, with a loan spell at Defensa y Justicia under former Chelsea and Argentina striker Hernan Crespo convincing River Plate to give him a chance, which he took.

    After 52 appearances for Los Millonarios, interest from Europe saw Fernandez linked with some big names, and it was Benfica who took the plunge.

    The Lisbon club will be pleased they did after making a profit of well over €100m after just half a season, with the midfielder not only impressing in the Primeira Liga and Champions League, but also starring for Argentina as they lifted the World Cup in Qatar last month, with Fernandez claiming the FIFA Best Young Player of the Tournament award.

    Is he really worth all that money, though?

    Chelsea clearly think so, and in Fernandez they have bought a player who will feel like a dream come true for head coach Graham Potter.

    In his time at Brighton and Hove Albion, Potter delighted in building midfields that could dominate the ball, that could keep hold of possession while also making incisive passes to turn the opposition around.

    Despite being one of the smaller clubs in the Premier League, Potter's Brighton averaged 54.3 per cent possession in league games in 2021-22 (only Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea had more), while averaging 496 passes per game, and 59 passes into the final third per game (sixth in the league for both metrics).

    Only Man City, Arsenal and, funnily enough, Brighton have a higher possession average than Chelsea since Potter took charge at Stamford Bridge in September, while only City have attempted more passes than the Blues, which will be where Fernandez comes in.

    The man who only turned 22 earlier on January 17 is a passing machine, having completed 1,431 in total in just 17 Primeira Liga games, over 200 more than the player with the next most in the Portuguese top-flight.

    It is not simply quantity over quality either, as Fernandez has also made 248 passes into the final third, at least 51 more than any other player.

    Not only do they lead the league in terms of the table, but Benfica are also league leaders in averages for possession (66.0 per cent), passes per game (623) and passes ending in the final third per game (70.6). Their style enables Fernandez, but in turn, his ability allows them to execute it, which must have Potter salivating. 

    Fernandez showed similar form in the Champions League as Benfica surprisingly won a group that included Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus, before going on to star in the World Cup as well.

    Several big clubs had already taken a shine to him, but the astonishing figure shelled out for him by Chelsea was no doubt rubber-stamped after his performances in Qatar, with Fernandez leading all players in the epic final between Argentina and France for touches (118), successful passes (77) and tackles (10). His 10 tackles were the most of any player in a World Cup final since Gennaro Gattuso in 2006 (15).

    But is he better than what Chelsea already have?

    In the Blues' midfield this season, Mateo Kovacic leads the way in terms of number of passes per 90 in Premier League games (69.0), ahead of Jorginho (61.7), with no other player to have played more than five games averaging even 50.

    Fernandez has been averaging 84.18 successful passes per game in Portugal, though consideration must be given to the difference in strength between the Premier League and Primeira Liga. In fact, it is the second-most of any midfielder in any of Europe's top 10 leagues this season, behind only Manchester City's Rodri (84.58), and ahead of Paris Saint-Germain's Marco Verratti (78.06) and Real Madrid's Toni Kroos (74.53).

    There is also the Argentine's creativity to take into account, with Chelsea struggling to score goals this season having only managed 22 in 20 league games so far.

    In league games, of those to have played more than twice, Conor Gallagher is averaging the most chances created from open play of Potter's midfield options at 1.59 per game, followed by Carney Chukwuemeka (1.38) and Mason Mount (1.24). Fernandez has averaged 1.62 per game.

    When you consider that Potter already had Kovacic, Mount, Gallagher, N'Golo Kante, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Denis Zakaria, Lewis Hall and Chukwuemeka to choose from, with Jorginho having departed for Arsenal on deadline day, you might think spending nine figures on another midfielder to be somewhat indulgent.

    With the early promise and potential trajectory of Fernandez though, Chelsea have quite probably taken the next step in a long-term rebuild. Jorginho and Kante are both 31 years old and out of contract at the end of the season, and investing in the future rather than the past makes sense for a team that always wants to be challenging for the biggest trophies.

    With great spending comes great expectations though, and the pressure will be immense on Fernandez to not just shine on the big stage, but to do so immediately.

    Chelsea's newest addition could justifiably insist he has done just that with every challenge thrown at him in a short space of time, including the biggest challenge of winning the World Cup.

    Enzo will no doubt back himself to prove he can live up to the price tag and be the Ferrari that Graham Potter needs.

  • Chelsea sign World Cup star Fernandez for Premier League record fee Chelsea sign World Cup star Fernandez for Premier League record fee

    Enzo Fernandez has finally signed for Chelsea, becoming the Premier League's record signing after the Blues met his £106.8million (€121m) release clause at Benfica.

    Fernandez, who was named Young Player of the Tournament after helping Argentina win the 2022 World Cup, was strongly linked with Chelsea earlier in the transfer window before talks broke down.

    However, the big-spending Blues went back in for him with the end of the window drawing closer, signing Fernandez to a long-term contract – rumoured to run until 2032 – with confirmation arriving an hour and a half after the transfer window closed.

    Chelsea submitted the relevant paperwork in time and Benfica were first to announce details of the deal on their official website on Wednesday.

    His arrival takes Chelsea's spending to a reported £288.5m (€328.5m) in January alone, with the midfielder becoming their eighth signing of the window.

    Fernandez only joined Benfica from River Plate last year but has played a starring role for them since making that move, helping the Portuguese giants top their Champions League group.

    He had looked likely to remain in Lisbon at least until the end of the season, but Chelsea revisited the deal with head coach Graham Potter reportedly keen for midfield reinforcements.

    The fee surpasses the previous Premier League transfer record, set by Jack Grealish's £100m switch from Aston Villa to Manchester City in 2021.

    Fernandez could make his Chelsea debut against Fulham at Stamford Bridge on Friday, as the Blues look to climb the table after a poor run of form saw them drop to 10th position. 

    A dogged competitor with an eye for the magnificent, Fernandez featured in all seven of Argentina's games in Qatar, starting five of them after he came off the bench to net a superb goal against Mexico in the group stage.

    Fernandez's ability on the ball, as well as his tenacity, will add a new facet to Potter's midfield options.

    Only 11 players carried the ball further than Fernandez (1,239.7 metres) at the World Cup, while just 10 were involved in more shot-ending sequences than his 27.

    Fernandez boasted a duel success rate of 58.8 per cent, winning 40 of his 68 engagements at the tournament.

    He made just 17 league appearances during his short stint with Benfica, though he also featured in five group games in the Champions League.

  • BREAKING NEWS: Chelsea sign World Cup star Fernandez for Premier League record fee BREAKING NEWS: Chelsea sign World Cup star Fernandez for Premier League record fee

    Enzo Fernandez has finally signed for Chelsea, becoming the Premier League's record signing after the Blues met his £106.8million (€121m) release clause at Benfica.

    Fernandez, who was named Young Player of the Tournament after helping Argentina win the 2022 World Cup, was strongly linked with Chelsea earlier in the transfer window before talks broke down.

    However, the big-spending Blues went back in for him with the end of the window drawing closer, signing Fernandez to a long-term contract – rumoured to run until 2032 – with confirmation arriving an hour and a half after the transfer window closed.

    Chelsea submitted the relevant paperwork in time and Benfica were first to announce details of the deal on their official website on Wednesday.

    His arrival takes Chelsea's spending to a reported £288.5m (€328.5m) this month alone, with the midfielder becoming their eighth signing of the January transfer window.

    Fernandez only joined Benfica from River Plate last year but has played a starring role for them since making that move, helping the Portuguese giants top their Champions League group.

    He had looked likely to remain in Lisbon at least until the end of the season, but Chelsea revisited the deal with head coach Graham Potter reportedly keen for midfield reinforcements.

    The fee surpasses the previous Premier League transfer record, set by Jack Grealish's £100m switch from Aston Villa to Manchester City in 2021.

    Fernandez could make his Chelsea debut against Fulham at Stamford Bridge on Friday, as the Blues look to climb the table after a poor run of form saw them drop to 10th position. 

    A dogged competitor with an eye for the magnificent, Fernandez featured in all seven of Argentina's games in Qatar, starting five of them after he came off the bench to net a superb goal against Mexico in the group stage.

    Fernandez's ability on the ball, as well as his tenacity, will add a new facet to Potter's midfield options.

    Only 11 players carried the ball further than Fernandez (1,239.7 metres) at the World Cup, while just 10 were involved in more shot-ending sequences than his 27.

    Fernandez boasted a duel success rate of 58.8 per cent, winning 40 of his 68 engagements at the tournament.

    He made just 17 league appearances during his short stint with Benfica, though he also featured in five group games in the Champions League.

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