Naomi Osaka was back on the New York tennis court on Monday night, not far from where she started seriously hitting a tennis ball as a child, and where her year started 12 months and what seems to be a lifetime.
The journey began with his refusal to play tennis after another police shootout on a black man. Then come his provocative and powerful masks, each adorned with the name of a victim of police violence, as well as the third Grand Slam title of his career. Then there were magazine covers; a magical race in Australia; a standoff with the press in Paris; revelations that she struggles with mental health; his decision to skip Wimbledon, the biggest tennis championship; followed by a triumph-until-it-wasn’t back to Tokyo, where she lit the Olympic cauldron for her home country.
Osaka has become the rare tennis player whose presence turns the heat up, even for something routine: a first-round match against an unrecognized but improving 23-year-old Czech named Marie Bouzkova.
If there’s one thing Osaka has shown in her young career, it’s that nothing with her is routine.
She entered a crowded Arthur Ashe stadium on Monday night as the defending champion and No.3 seed at the US Open, just over six months from being declared virtually unbeatable on the hard courts, where she won each of her four Grand Slam titles.
She has the kind of resume that usually makes a player a big favorite, not only to win her first game, but also to win her third US Open singles title in four years. At the baseline, she bounces on her toes like a boxer and makes her characteristic thigh kick while waiting for her opponent’s service.
Steve Nash, Hall of Fame basketball player and Brooklyn Nets coach, and former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson were among a much larger and more electric crowd of nearly 20,000. than the usual opening night of this 14 days. tournament.
Would he have been surprised that Osaka lost, after the tumultuous race it embarked on last year, and the poor results it achieved this summer? She had only played nine matches since April and was 5-5, including one fault at Roland Garros.
She didn’t lose, but Osaka had a tough first set against Bouzkova, struggling to find her rhythm against the hard-hitting Czech. She had to save eight break points. But after splitting the first eight games, Osaka started to push Bouzkova deep into the baseline with her crisp, powerful shots and, unsurprisingly, began to earn most of the important points as well. She won eight of the next nine games for a 6-4, 6-1 victory.
It was a much closer game than the score line suggested, filled with close matches, long points and shattering rallies, but also a more promising opening for his first Grand Slam in three months than last time. she has undertaken one of the most popular sports events.
In May, Osaka arrived in Paris for Roland Garros declaring that she would no longer attend the mandatory press conferences that all players attend after a match, whether they win or lose, if their attendance is requested. She said they caused too much mental stress and she would pay tens of thousands of dollars in fines instead.
In a few days, the organizers of Roland-Garros, with the support of the leaders of the other three Grand Slam events, threatened to expel him from the tournament. A day later, Osaka gave up, announcing that she would be taking a hiatus from sports and telling the world that she had been battling depression for almost three years.
On Sunday, just over 24 hours before its opener at the US Open, another pre-tournament statement arrived. This one was much less confrontational and more nuanced, but still challenged anyone who criticized her recent below-par performances, at Roland Garros or the Olympics, where she was beaten hard in the round of 16. final by Marketa Vondrousova, another young unconfirmed Czech player, ranked 38th in the world.
In an Instagram post that she also shared on TwitterOsaka said she realized, upon reflection, that she was far too critical of herself.
“I think I’m never good enough,” she wrote. “I never told myself that I did a good job but I keep telling myself that I suck or that I could do better.”
She urged people to value the smallest achievements, even stand up and fight procrastination, and she pledged to celebrate her own achievements more.
“Your life is yours and you shouldn’t measure yourself by other people’s standards,” she wrote. “I know I give my heart to all I can and if that isn’t enough for some, then my apologies, but I can’t take care of these expectations anymore. Seeing everything that is going on in the world, I feel like if I wake up in the morning, it’s a victory. This is how I come.
What Osaka meant exactly can sometimes be guessed. She’s sort of a tennis sphinx, insisting that the message people get from her is more important than any message she tries to get across.
In addition, she admitted a certain impulsiveness. If she thinks or feels something, she may very well say it, write it down or do it, without thinking about all the consequences.
On Friday however, Osaka admitted that she plays much better when she plays with a goal beyond competing for another trophy and $ 2.5 million, the prize for winning the US Open.
“I’m the type of player who plays better if I have a reason or if I have a goal or if I’m motivated by something,” she said at a press conference before the tournament. “In New York last year, the biggest goal for me was just to get this message across. I feel like I did well there. At the moment, I don’t really have a message to convey. So it’s going to be really interesting to see what motivates me.
Osaka seems to have set a goal – to play without a fight for every mistake, every missed opportunity and, if it does, another loss, even as the chorus of critics escalates.
She’s heard all the criticisms, and she knows better than anyone that she hasn’t even made a quarterfinal since March, let alone a Grand Slam final. She knows how little she has played this year – remarkably little given her standings and stature as a winner of two of the last four Grand Slam tournaments and four of the last 11.
That, she hopes, will be the Grand Slam when she begins to overcome her obsession with perfection that leads to disappointment when something she does is great but not flawless. Amid thousands of fans screaming Monday night in the biggest tennis stadium, Osaka’s ear stayed in tune with the shrill cries of a little girl sitting low next to the court.
“I just want to be happy to know that I did my best and to know that even though I didn’t play perfectly I was able to win a match in straight sets,” she said after her Victoire. “Or if I have to fight, play a three-set game, knowing I made a few mistakes, but it’s okay in the end because I’ll learn from matches that I keep playing.”
“It’s not really a tournament question,” she added at the end of the evening. “It’s more like a thing of life.”