French Open 2019: Naomi Osaka’s claycourt limitations, weight of expectations finally catch up in straight-set loss to Katerina Siniakova

When a professional tennis player has just hammered a blistering groundstroke into the corner, what do they think of doing next? A coach would tell them that they must not take anything for granted at such times, and that they should expect the ball to come back no matter how good the shot may have been. And a good coach would also tell them that they should definitely not stand rooted to the court and admire their shot.

And yet, that’s what Naomi Osaka seemed to be doing repeatedly during her listless 4-6, 2-6 loss to Katerina Siniakova in the French Open third round. She would hit a crunching forehand seemingly out of reach of Siniakova, and then wait a split second as though she couldn’t be more pleased with herself. Unfortunately for her though, the ball kept coming back — leaving her unprepared to hit the follow-up shot, and ultimately costing her the point.

 French Open 2019: Naomi Osaka’s claycourt limitations, weight of expectations finally catch up in straight-set loss to Katerina Siniakova

Naomi Osaka's limitations on clay came to fore in her third-round loss. AP

Knowing Osaka and her almost comically self-deprecating manner, she probably wasn’t really ‘admiring’ her shots. It is more likely that her lack of experience on clay, and a general sense of discomfort on the surface, caused her to almost literally drop the ball. Osaka is as far from being a claycourt expert as we are to finding life on Mars, and that showed in all three of her Roland Garros matches this year.

The Japanese has ruled the hardcourt Slams over the last six months, and has been the most important player in the world during that time — as reinforced by the fact that she will continue to hold on to the No 1 ranking no matter what happens at the French Open. Going into the third round, Osaka had won 16 Slam matches on the trot — a run that was almost in Serena Williams air. But the circumstances in Paris couldn’t have been more different than they were in Melbourne and New York.

Osaka is used to taking the racquet out of her opponents’ hands, and to playing matches entirely on her terms. Her attacking brand of tennis is accurate and powerful, and of late, nobody has had an answer to it at the biggest stage — not even Williams. But that dominant streak has also led to the creation of certain habits that are not ideal for all kinds of situations.

Osaka has become accustomed to never hitting more shots than she plans to. She can hit winners seemingly at will, and so is rarely drawn into extended, lung-busting rallies that are the hallmark of players like Simona Halep and Sloane Stephens. Osaka has developed more consistency in her groundstrokes, but the primary purpose of that has been to cut down on free points for her opponents, and not to grind out wins through sheer mechanical force of repetition.

But the habits that work in Melbourne don’t necessarily work in Paris. Osaka faced what seemed like an impregnable wall in Siniakova, and when she couldn’t pierce through it, she grew increasingly impatient and frustrated.

The Japanese made 38 unforced errors on the day, and many of them came from positions of absolute dominance. Time and again, she worked a point in her favor with her forceful groundstrokes, and time and again, she made a hash out of the one extra shot she was made to hit. Osaka’s greatest mistake was that she didn’t expect that extra shot; a mistake that would never be made by a true-blue claycourter.

Osaka doesn’t move particularly well on clay either; her reluctance to slide has been evident every time she has stepped on to the court this week. After her barn-burning win over Victoria Azarenka in the second round, this writer had predicted that a powerful hitter would be able to exploit this weakness in Osaka’s game sooner or later. As it turned out though, it was a defence specialist who tripped up the World No 1 instead.

Even though Siniakova didn’t possess the firepower to wrong-foot Osaka, she did have the good sense to make her move to different parts of the court and hit more shots than she wanted to. It was a simple strategy, and it worked like a charm.

It is a mark of how good Osaka has been at escaping out of holes that many of us expected her to turn things around even when she went down a break in the second. She had pulled off two Houdini acts in the preceding two rounds; why not a third?

As we found out, it was because on the third try she couldn’t take any of the chances she was given. Osaka went 0 for 7 on break points through the match, failing to come up with any semblance of authority when it mattered the most. She had been living on the edge for too long, relying on her raw skills to bail her out in the nick of time, but against Siniakova, she simply ran out of time.

The questions in her post-match press conference were harder than they’d ever been for her; this was, after all, the first time she had lost a match at a Major while being the world’s top-ranked player. But there has been an intense wave of attention plastered on to her since last September, which has only added to the pressure.

Osaka has been a marked woman ever since her US Open victory. There has been a brighter spotlight on her at all times, the expectations have been higher than ever, and the demands of the media and fans have been getting almost ridiculous. There was even talk of a Calendar Slam — including from her own team — despite her almost non-existent track record on clay and grass.

The 21-year-old admitted after the match that the expectations had been weighing her down. “I haven’t been able to relax since I got here. This tournament, I have had a feeling that was different to every other Grand Slam that I have played, because usually, I find it very freeing and fun, and this time around I was kind of tense the entire time…I have been tense even when I’m sleeping,” she said.

Fortunately for Osaka, some of that tension would have been released by this loss, and she knows it. “It’s weird, but I think me losing is probably the best thing that could have happened…I really can’t say too many negative things about this…we can only look towards the future.”

The future will certainly hold a lot more big occasions like this, and a lot more matches in uncomfortably alien conditions. And yes, it’s impossible to imagine Osaka being a Roland Garros champion with the claycourt game she displayed this year. That said, it’s also impossible to imagine that she won’t work towards improving it.

If the last six months — and her self-confessed Calendar Slam aspirations — have taught us anything, it is that Osaka is an ambitious woman who is unlikely to be content with what she’s achieved already. The next time she’s in Paris, she will likely be prepared for that extra ball coming back; it would be unwise to expect anything less.

Updated Date: Jun 02, 2019 08:10:34 IST