China Open 2019: With back-to-back titles in Asia, Naomi Osaka has shown the world she’s still got what it takes
Playing her home tournament, in a place that she shares her name with, turned out to be the catalyst in Naomi Osaka's career that was threatening to go off the rails
When Osaka arrived in Asia for the fall swing with her father Leonard Francois, she was in some ways a few steps back than she was a year ago
Osaka's 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 win in the China Open final against Ashleigh Barty was a classic example of her innate problem-solving skills and indication of how greatly her mental equilibrium affects her tennis.
With her back-to-back titles in Asia, Osaka has salvaged a season that was threatening to go off the rails
Having nothing left to prove – is one of the strongest indications that you’ve ‘made it’ in life. When your body of work speaks for itself, and the people around you stop questioning your credentials, you know that your career is a success.
Naomi Osaka should theoretically have felt that she had nothing left to prove when she became a Grand Slam champion at 20, defeating Serena Williams along the way. How much more could she really be expected to achieve at an age when most people aren’t sure of what they want to do in life, let alone acing whatever they are doing?
But Osaka refused to take the pressure off herself. “If you don’t win a tournament, then people will say, ‘Oh, she hasn’t won a tournament’,” she had said at the China Open last year, after losing in the semi-finals. “If you haven’t won a Slam, they’ll say, ‘She hasn’t won a Slam’. Then if you win one Grand Slam, they’re like, ‘Oh, she only won one Grand Slam’. I think that’s one of the things that makes me want to prove myself.”
A few months later, she did prove herself, adding the Australian Open to her US Open crown (so that people couldn’t say ‘she only won one Grand Slam’ anymore) and ascending to the World No. 1 ranking. But then she split with coach Sascha Bajin, and her results nosedived at the same time that the expectations had started heading for the skies.
By the time Roland Garros arrived, she was a top seed who somehow had more question marks around her than any other player in the draw. “I kind of feel like I’m having the thought of wanting to prove myself again,” she said after winning her first-round match in Paris.
She would win just one more match before exiting the tournament, and a month after that she would lose in the Wimbledon first round. When her US Open title defence came to a shuddering halt in the fourth round, she fired her coach again – this time the popular Jermaine Jenkins.
A year that had started so promisingly looked like it was heading towards a pool of doubt and defeat. Osaka was visibly cracking under pressure, getting down on herself and looking like a woebegone child every time things weren’t going her way. Her racquet-smashing, slump-shouldered despondence on the court was doing nothing to improve her results, and instead was making her seem younger than her 21 years.
When Osaka arrived in Asia for the fall swing with her father Leonard Francois, she was in some ways a few steps back than she was a year ago. She had gone back to the coach she had when she was a struggling teenager, she was far away from the No. 1 ranking, and her place as the flavor of the season had been taken up by an even younger Bianca Andreescu.
Osaka was in danger of being branded a ‘two-Slam wonder’ – is that worse than being called a one-Slam wonder? – and it was hard to tell where the moment of inspiration was going to come from.
Playing her home tournament, in a place that she shares her name with, turned out to be the catalyst. Osaka won the Pan Pacific Open held in the city where she was born – incidentally called Osaka – and she came into the year’s fourth Premier Mandatory event at Beijing with a measure of confidence that had been missing since the Australian Open.
That showed in nearly every match she played during the week. She defeated a string of quality opponents early on without dropping a set, and in the quarter-final against Andreescu she brought out her most fiercely determined tennis that we thought had been lost amid the turmoil of 2019. Osaka was a break down in each of the three sets that the two women played, but she clawed her way back every single time to hand the Canadian her first loss in six months.
The final against World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty was a similarly cagey affair. Barty came out with a clearly defined plan, constantly varying the speed of the ball to throw her opponent off her rhythm. The Australian’s backhand slice gave Osaka all sorts of problems early on; after half an hour she had the first set in the bag, and the Japanese was reduced to burying her head under a towel at every changeover.
What was she telling herself during those moments where she was isolating herself from the world? “I just told myself if I stop being dramatic I could honestly contest it. I think that’s what I did in the second and third,” Osaka said later. In short, she was telling herself to cut out the bullshit and get on with it.
You have to wonder whether any coach in the world could have given her advice as simple and effective as that. Yes, her father did keep coming down to have a chat, but what Osaka did in the last two sets seemed more instinctive than anything she had done since Melbourne.
The Japanese is a big hitter, but she’s not quite in the mold of the Sharapovas and Kvitovas, who like to belt the ball at full speed every half-chance they get. Osaka instead likes to take her time during rallies and use her opponents’ pace against them; she is, in essence, a big hitter with the mindset of a counterpuncher. And that was exactly what was needed to get the win on the day.
When she realized that Barty was going to give her very little pace with her backhand, Osaka decided that she’d like no pace at all. She stopped giving her rally balls on that wing altogether. Instead she started opening up the court with her acutely-angled crosscourt forehand, going down-the-line only when she was sure that an on-the-run Barty would throw up a short or weak ball in reply.
Even with her crosscourt backhand Osaka refused to give the Australian any three-quarter-length shot to hit. She sacrificed pace or angle if she had to, but she resolutely made Barty hit her slice from wide of the court or from five feet behind the baseline.
The slice neutralized, Osaka then went about the rest of her business as though it was just another day in the office. And considering the power advantage she had over Barty, that was enough to create marginal openings to change the complexion of the match. The serve worked particularly well throughout (Osaka won 80% of her first serve points), and her one-two punch was so effective that by the end she was flying through most of her service games.
Osaka’s 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 win was a classic example of her innate problem-solving skills, but it was also an indication of how greatly her mental equilibrium affects her tennis. For much of the last six months she has carried a defeatist attitude to the court, getting too negative at the slightest hint of trouble. But in Beijing, both against Andreescu and Barty, Osaka remained upbeat despite having her back against the wall.
When she missed a shot, she shadow-practiced her swing instead of getting frustrated; when she went a break down, she willed herself into recovery instead of looking morose about her fortunes. The contrast from her mid-2019 self couldn’t have been starker.
Her father may have had a big role to play in that. “He is a person that knows my game the most,” Osaka had said earlier in the tournament while talking about her new-old coach. “He’s the kind of person that knows the trigger words, whether good or bad.” It’s easy to imagine that all Francois had to do during those on-court coaching sessions was utter the ‘trigger words’ that would keep his daughter positive. He may not be helping her add any new wrinkles to her game, but he is at least keeping her in the right frame of mind – and sometimes, for a player of Osaka’s gifts, that’s all that’s needed.
With her back-to-back titles in Asia, Osaka has salvaged a season that was threatening to go off the rails. She will now go into the year-ending WTA Finals as one of the favorites, with an outside chance of getting back the No. 1 ranking too. Was it her intention all along to use the fall swing as a vehicle to regain her place at the top of the pile? Or was it simply a matter of showing the world that in the post-Andreescu world, she still had what it takes?
“I really wanted to win here, I felt like I had something to prove,” Osaka said after the match. She has certainly proven a lot of things, both this week and in her career overall. You wonder when, if ever, she will stop feeling the need to do that.
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