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Saturday, November 27, 2021

What it was like to watch Naomi Osaka up close during her vexing 2021 US Open

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  • van valkenburg kevin

    Kevin Van ValkenburgESPN Senior Writer

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    • Senior Writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine
    • Born and raised in Western Montana
    • Spent 11 years as a feature writer for The Baltimore Sun

NEW YORK — Naomi Osaka did not want to be cut off. She did not want to be rescued. Yes, she was crying in her US Open postmatch news conference, crying as she struggled to find the right words so she could share what was on her mind, but each time the moderator tried to end it, assuming Osaka didn’t want to continue, Osaka overruled him. She was determined to get this out.

“Recently, when I win, I don’t feel happy,” Osaka said late Friday night. “I only feel relief. When I lose, I feel very sad. And I don’t think that’s normal. Basically, I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do. I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match. I think I’m going to take a break from playing for a while.”

It was a stunning moment, and it might take on extra weight in the coming months — and years — if Osaka never plays professional tennis again. This isn’t the first time Osaka has announced she needed to take a break from the sport. She was, after all, coming off an extended break that saw her withdraw from the French Open and skip Wimbledon. But this felt different. Sitting in the room, I wondered whether I had just listened to a retirement speech. Osaka was clearly hurting, but before she slipped out of sight, she was going to find the composure to tell the world something.

She was not OK. And she wanted to admit that.

“I guess we’re all dealing with some stuff,” Osaka said. “But I know I’m dealing with some stuff.”

Ever since Osaka withdrew from the French Open after being informed she’d be fined increasing amounts if she didn’t consent to postmatch interviews, I’ve been mulling a story idea. It felt as if Osaka was asking, just for a while, to let her tennis speak for itself. At least until the world felt less awful for her and talking made her less anxious.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized: Was she really asking for that much? And what did it say about us if we cared more about the talking than the tennis?

Maybe instead of longing for sound bites, we might learn something by slowing down and observing, letting her physical gifts marinate in our consciousness, because a perfectly struck forehand has a language all its own. So does a racket thrown in anger.

I made a vow to watch — to truly watch — Osaka move through time and space at the US Open. No questions, no quotes. I was just going to write what I saw.

What I saw, I now realize, was someone in pain.

I wonder if what I witnessed was an ending.

But also, maybe, a beginning.


Osaka’s first-round match against Marie Bouzkova on Aug. 30 felt, for flashes, like a triumphant return to form. Despite all that had unfolded in the past last year, Osaka came to Queens as the defending champion. The last time she’d played a match in Arthur Ashe Stadium, she’d walked away with her second US Open trophy. If any place was going to inject her with some much-needed positivity, it was this one.

She was light on her toes as the match began, shifting her weight back and forth, trying to find her center. Most tennis players do this, unconsciously fidgeting to quiet their mind before the ball is in the air, the moment when they ask instinct and training to take over. But with Osaka, it has always felt a little deliberate, as if she is trying to persuade herself to keep moving and stop thinking.

Osaka’s serve, arguably the best in the women’s game, can look a lot like a lightning bolt racing downhill. I know this because, for one service game, I found an empty seat on the baseline behind Bouzkova, trying to watch it from her perspective. Osaka likes to blow air on her fingers before she dribbles the ball, likes to hold it up and nod to her opponent before she serves, a small reminder the start of a point shouldn’t be a surprise. She closes her eyes as she tips her head back, just for a split second, then coils her spine as she tosses the ball into the air. Jumping off her toes, she springs into space, hammering her racket downward, sending the ball screaming over the net.

Bouzkova, a 23-year-old from Prague, handled these lightning bolts with more vigor than I might have expected, stepping into balls with a piercing two-handed backhand that made Osaka run and change directions, even flustering her occasionally. The flaws that would prove fatal in her next match against Leylah Fernandez were there, but I wasn’t smart enough to see them yet. Osaka wasn’t moving well, not reacting to the ball as she once did. At 4-4 in the opening set, Bouzkova scraped together a break point and for a moment it felt as if we might have a competitive match.

It’s then I saw it, the vast gulf between Osaka and someone like Bouzkova, a wiry and fast but also limited tennis player. A cold intensity washed over Osaka’s face. She thundered a serve out wide, her right arm uncoiling in a blur, and Bouzkova flailed in desperation but could do nothing more than deflect it off the frame of her racket. Deuce. Another serve from Osaka, this time rifled up the middle, and Bouzkova’s head sank as it sped by untouched. Advantage Osaka. She bounced on her toes, cracked the whip a third time and blasted a second straight ace by Bouzkova to end the game.

As the crowd erupted, Osaka looked more relieved than elated, letting loose a short scream. It ended well before the applause did. Bouzkova looked dazed. She would win only one game the rest of the match, rarely forcing Osaka to win extended rallies.

A couple of times, Osaka blew on her fingers as she was headed to her chair, and I pictured a gunslinger walking away from a shootout, deadpan and unfazed, like she was just glad it was over.

When the match ended, she spotted a little girl in the crowd who had been cheering for her. Osaka jogged over to her bag, rummaged inside and retrieved something, an Olympic pin she handed to the little girl. The little girl smiled, and so did Osaka. It was one of the few times she smiled all evening.


This has been a vexing season for Osaka. In February, she captured her fourth career Grand Slam title, winning the Australian Open for the second time, dominating the draw and losing just one set on her way to the title. But in May, she withdrew from the French Open, then decided to skip Wimbledon entirely. When she returned to play a tune-up in Cincinnati, she cried during her news conference. The isolation of COVID, she said, was starting to wear on her.

Osaka’s serve can be lethal, and her two-handed backhand is efficient, maybe even underrated at times. But her forehand has long made me feel things. During her rise, it was as good a marriage of grace and power as anything in sports. Like a trumpet blast or a cymbal crash, it had a way of announcing its presence.

It was here, at the US Open, that her forehand first came of age. In 2017, as an unseeded 19-year-old, she thrashed the defending champion, Angelique Kerber, so convincingly in the first round (6-3, 6-1) that Osaka was almost sheepish afterward. Some of her forehands left Kerber looking overwhelmed. She needed reps to consistently harness it, but a year later, she would run Serena Williams ragged with the same shots on the same court to win her first Grand Slam title. Williams looked miserable in defeat, smashing her racket and verbally attacking the chair umpire. It wasn’t long before Osaka took over as the No. 1 player in the world.

Much has happened since, however. Now her forehand runs hot and cold. As Osaka gained more experience, she lost some innocence. She stopped playing fearless tennis. When she drew Fernandez in the third round after a walkover in the second, it felt like a dangerous matchup. In addition to being left-handed, Fernandez had nothing to lose.

Even on bad days, there is something mesmerizing about the way Osaka coils her body in anticipation of the ball, storing energy in her core before unwinding and unleashing it, pushing off the ground as she rotates so that both feet are often in the air at impact.

Every modern tennis player uses a version of this method to generate power, swinging the core instead of the arm, an evolution that, on the women’s side, probably began with Steffi Graf before it was perfected by the Williams sisters. Serena, however, learned to generate power with her feet still connected to the ground, a technique that sharpened her accuracy and allowed her to change directions quickly. Osaka’s power is like a mix of the hammer throw and the ballet, with little sautés after her best shots. The fluid, looping arc she makes with her right arm can be beautiful to watch, but it is also maddeningly inconsistent.

Osaka might have looked across the net at times against Fernandez and seen a version of her old self. It was Osaka who used to play fearless tennis, who pumped her fist between points and fed off the energy of the crowd inside Arthur Ashe. It was Osaka, once upon a time, who didn’t let mistakes bother her, who watched others melt down while she remained composed. But the deeper into the match she went Friday, the more obvious it was that something wasn’t right, either with her game or with her state of mind. Even after she broke Fernandez at 5-5 in the first set with a pair of majestic forehand winners, it didn’t seem to help her relax.

In the second-set tiebreak, Osaka’s anger bubbled over after each missed shot. She hit a forehand wide to fall behind 4-0, then tomahawked her racket into the ground, drawing a chorus of jeers from the crowd as she sheepishly walked to the net to retrieve it. She threw her racket again after losing the next point, drawing a warning from the chair umpire for her behavior. I was reminded of her US Open final against Serena Williams on this same court, when Williams infamously lost her cool as the match slipped away. Osaka spent much of the changeover before Friday’s third set with a towel draped over her head, looking as if she was trying hide from the world, longing to be anywhere else.

Fernandez broke Osaka’s serve in the first game, and from there, it was obvious it was only a matter of time. There would be no spirited rally. When Fernandez won a point in the second game with a shot that clipped the net, Osaka responded by firing the ball into the stands in anger. It became difficult to watch.

Osaka tried to compose herself between points, taking deep breaths and an extra second to fiddle with the strings of her racket while her back was to the court, but all that accomplished was drawing more jeers from the crowd. When the match ended with another unforced error by Osaka, Fernandez pumped her fists with ecstasy, soaking up a standing ovation from the fans. Osaka gave her a brief congratulatory hug, then quickly packed her things and departed, throwing up a gentle peace sign as she exited the court.

An hour later, she was wiping away tears, but adamant that no one was going to stop her from saying what she wanted — what she needed to say. This might be it for her, at least for a while. It wasn’t an answer to a question about her future; she volunteered the information unprompted. There were long bouts of silence as she tried get the words out.

When she finished, Osaka looked relieved. She put her mask back on and got to her feet.

She drifted toward the door, never once looking back.

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