Teenager Marle van der Merwe was the unwitting star of the show at one point during last weekend’s Australian Open final, but it so nearly could have been very different.
A photo of the 15-year-old ballkid went viral because of the expression on her face after Naomi Osaka beat Jennifer Brady in straight sets to claim her fourth grand slam title — and second crown at Melbourne Park.
The snap, captured by Getty Images’ Quinn Rooney, was noticed by plenty of fans but it wasn’t until later in the week Osaka herself caught up on why it was doing the rounds on social media.
“Was looking at pics from AO and I just noticed the ball girl in this … hi,” Osaka posted to Twitter with a love heart and waving emoji.
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Marle wasn’t even supposed to be a ballkid this year, but as fate would have it, something changed.
She would normally have been one year too old to be a ballkid, meaning 2020 should have been her last appearance at the Australian Open, but because of COVID-19, restrictions changed and she was given another gig.
“They weren’t able to train any new ballkids because of COVID so they got some of the older kids back and I was one of them, so I got another chance,” she told the Herald Sun.
Speaking on ABC Breakfast on Friday, Marle said even with the unexpected opportunity she wasn’t sure if she would accept, but decided at the death to go around again doing something she really enjoys.
“I wasn’t going to do it because of school but last-minute I decided to do it,” she said. “I couldn’t pass it up. I decided to do it and it led to this (Osaka photo).”
Marle said during the match she was silently cheering for Osaka, but being the professional she is, would have looked just as pleased had Brady won the final to clinch her maiden grand title.
The youngster only found out about Osaka’s tweet, which has since amassed more than 74,000 likes, when her mum sent her a link while she was at school, giving her even more street cred among her friends.
Meanwhile, Osaka took to social again on Friday, this time to show off a bold new look that featured straight, bright pink hair and pink eye shadow — a far cry from her usual brown, curly locks she pulls back into a ponytail when she’s on the court.
There’s a possibility the world No. 2 was testing out a wig just to see what going pink for a day would feel like, but it looks pretty legitimate to us as a dye job.
Osaka referenced Japanese Manga character Sakura in her post and Olympic sprinting legend Usain Bolt was a fan, commenting on Instagram: “U wore it better @naomiosaka lol.”
Osaka thumped Brady 6-4 6-3 on Rod Laver Arena last Saturday night before her victory speech drew attention because of an awkward, unintentional blooper.
After asking Brady whether she preferred to be called Jennifer or Jenny, the American answered “Jenny”. However, Osaka turned back to the microphone and opened with: “Firstly, I want to congratulate Jennifer.”
The accidental one-liner made the internet crack up but while the snub may have added insult to injury, the four-time major winner was horrified to learn she’d completely ignored Brady’s direction.
Taking to Twitter on Sunday, Osaka wrote “OMG no” with crying and sad emojis. “I promise you my mind thought I called her Jenny in that moment and I was so confused why the crowd was laughing. I’m so sorry,” she said.