Australian Open 2022: Naomi Osaka, 24, feeling the heat from younger competitors

For the second Grand Slam in a row the former World No 1 succumbed to someone who played like they had nothing to lose.

Deepti Patwardhan January 22, 2022 09:36:15 IST
Australian Open 2022: Naomi Osaka, 24, feeling the heat from younger competitors

Naomi Osaka exited the Australian Open, losing to Amanda Anisimova in the third round. AP

Naomi Osaka isn’t old. At 24, she isn’t even tennis old. But ever since her US Open breakthrough in 2018, the precocious Japanese player has grown in stature. She is the only player in the past decade, apart from Serena Williams, to win back-to-back Grand Slam tournaments, twice, and the only one to win more than three majors. In an era of unreal depth in women’s tennis, where the winner’s baton changes hands after almost every major, Osaka has already established herself as a rarity. She is the leader of the pack, the voice of her generation.

It isn’t surprising then that she feels the weight of expectations every time she steps onto a hard court.

“For me, it is very interesting to play against the younger players,” she had said like an old-timer after winning the second round of the Australian Open and setting up a clash with 20-year-old Amanda Anisimova. “Because I remember being a younger player myself and feeling like I have nothing to lose.”

Like her serve, Osaka’s prediction was right on the money. For the second Grand Slam in a row the former World No 1 succumbed to someone who played like they had nothing to lose.

At the 2021 US Open, where Osaka was the defending champion, she went down 7-5, 6-7 (2), 6-4 to Leylah Fernandez.  There were echoes of that loss during her 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (5) defeat to Anisimova on Friday. Not just because Osaka had faltered at the same hurdle, the third round, but also because she had been the one to strike first, snatch the lead and had victory within touching distance.

The Japanese had served for the match at 6-5 in the second set against 19-year-old Fernandez before her game unraveled. Against Anisimova, she held two match points, albeit on the American’s serve in the third set. But Osaka’s backhand buckled; a few minutes later her challenge folded.

But while the teenaged Fernandez had absorbed all of Osaka’s power and fist-pumped her way to a famous victory, Anisimova, dressed in blazing red, hit the ball harder than the Japanese. Anisimova hit 46 winners to Osaka’s 21, hit 11 aces to Osaka’s five and saved two match points to upstage the defending champion.

It is not like the American is new to the stage. A clean, confident striker of the ball, Anisimova had upset Aryna Sabalenka and Simona Halep en route her semi-final run at the 2019 French Open as a 17-year-old. But the youngster has endured a couple of challenging seasons and overcome the demise of her father.

A rebooted Anisimova was quick out of the blocks in 2022, winning the Australian Open tune-up event, Melbourne Summer Set 2. She has also added legendary coach Darren Cahill, on trial basis, to her team.

Australian Open 2022 Naomi Osaka 24 feeling the  <span class=Heat from younger competitors" width="640" height="362" />

Amanda Anisimova's reward for beating Naomi Osaka is a clash with World No 1 Ashleigh Barty at the Australian Open. AP

No 13 seed Osaka, who had started as the tournament favourite, looked truly in charge only for the first half an hour. She won the first set on the back of a break of serve she had secured on Anisimova’s first service game, when the feisty American was still warming up to the challenge. As the match wore on, the World No 60 started timing the ball better, opening the court expertly and started heaping pressure on the Osaka serve. She dug her teeth into the contest by breaking Osaka early in the second set; leaping to a 3-1 lead by carving out a backhand slice drop on break point.

Osaka has one of the trickiest serves in the women’s game but Anisimova was able to win 31 per cent of the receiving points and strike eight return winners. After the match, Osaka acknowledged that she was caught out by the pace on Anisimova’s ball and her returning prowess.

“I thought definitely in the rallies she was dictating a bit more, which was a new feeling for me,” the Japanese said. “Granted, I’ve never played her before, so I didn’t know the pace of her ball, but it was definitely a bit jarring to be on my back foot in most of the rallies.”

As the match entered the mental minefield of the third set, Anisimova stuck to her guns. She wielded the backhand down the line, one of the toughest strokes, like a weapon. In the final set, the American recorded 20 winners and 18 unforced errors. Under-fire Osaka hit 21 unforced errors and managed only six winners. Having dug out of a 15-40 hole at 4-5 in the decider, Anisimova carried the momentum and belief into the tie-break. She closed out the match with an ace.

A four-time Grand Slam champion, Osaka is at that stage in her career when her losing makes bigger news. “I fought for every point. I can't be sad about that. You know, I'm not God. I can't win every match,” she said after the match, admitting that it was still a “fun match to play.”

The silver-lining was Osaka’s new-found attitude. The 24-year-old had disintegrated in a pool of tears at the US Open, told the world she was hurting and took, what was supposed to be, an indefinite break from tennis. But Osaka returned to the court earlier than expected, happier than before, with a resolution to not get bogged down by rankings or results.

There was a time when she was the underdog, the one to dethrone the queen of tennis. Despite all that occurred on *that* unfortunate September night at the 2018 US Open, Osaka’s fierce hitting against Serena, the woman that pioneered the era of power tennis, in the final had stood out. It seemed like the peerless Williams had found an heir.

Osaka had gone into the final thankful for a chance of taking on her idol in the biggest arena in the sport and walked out a worthy champion. Though at times she has struggled to find the joy, the conviction in her tennis has remained. And she will need it more than ever with younger competitors, with nothing to lose, snap at her heels.

Read all the Latest News, Trending NewsCricket News, Bollywood NewsIndia News and Entertainment News here. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Updated Date:

also read

Wimbledon chiefs slam 'disproportionate' removal of ATP, WTA ranking points
Sports

Wimbledon chiefs slam 'disproportionate' removal of ATP, WTA ranking points

Wimbledon stated they will assess their options after ATP, WTA, ITF stripped the third major of the year of all ranking points.

Lessons learnt in Tokyo, G Sathiyan sets sights on Paris Olympics 2024
Sports

Lessons learnt in Tokyo, G Sathiyan sets sights on Paris Olympics 2024

From fitness to power, table tennis star G Sathiyan is sweating it out on various fronts to be a better version of himself.

Naomi Osaka ready to boycott Wimbledon over ranking points row
Sports

Naomi Osaka ready to boycott Wimbledon over ranking points row

Former world number one Naomi Osaka said she may skip Wimbledon over the decision to strip the Grand Slam tournament of ranking points.