NAOMI OSAKA AND THE DANCE OF INNOCENCE

0
2036
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The famous-long-ago singer Dinah Shore once informed us that “tennis is like a wonderful, long-lasting relationship with a husband. Golf is a tempestuous, lousy lover. It is totally unpredictable, a constant surprise.”

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!

Tennis can surprise and tennis can be a lousy lover that betrays.

In particular, we see young girls first emerge on the tour filled with innocent glee and subsumed with delight at the possibility of dancing on big stages. One thinks of CiCi Bellis, Vicky Duval and Melanie Oudin in recent times. But the phenomenon goes back to many of the legends of the game. As a giddy teen, Monica Seles walked out on Court Centrale at Roland Garros and joyfully tossed flowers to the French Open crowd. What innocence – right? But when she offered a flower to Zina Garrison, her no-nonsense foe bristled – who are you kidding, kid?

Similarly, long before heartaches would engulf them, young Steffi Graf, Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova wildly celebrated the unblemished joys of youth. Graf gushed, “Golly, I have a great life for 17, don’t I? Everyone would choose my life, wouldn’t they?”

For the past two years reporters have raved about the enchanting Naomi Osaka. “What a delight” was the consensus. Call her carefree, matter-of-fact, nonchalant or simply bemused, Osaka always projected an innocent Holly-Go-Lightly ‘tude. At age 16, she was asked when she realized she was a really good player. She replied, “When I was born.” Two years ago, when she scored a breakout win over US Open champ Sam Stosur, she started to simply walk off the court until the court-side announcer said, “Hold on, don’t go” and told her she had to shake hands with the chair ump, do an on-court interview, and hit balls into the stands. Then when she came to the interview room, Osaka pointed to the microphone and asked, “Do I talk into this?” Rarely has the tour seen such innocence. One reporter then asked her to talk about the fact that she was born in Osaka, Japan and was named Osaka. She replied with a devastatingly straight face, “Oh everyone in Osaka [a city of 2.7 million] is named Osaka.”

She’s soft-spoken, whimsical, reflective and appealing. And not only that, she has a hefty serve and a devastating forehand with great variety. She has a background with great variety too. She was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father and then moved to the US where she began to play when she was three. She soon moved to Florida to train and then moved up the rankings, thanks in part to playing well at big events. All the while, players noted her shots while reporters loved her quips. After she took the first game of a match against former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, she confided that she told herself, “This is going to be easy.” But, in the next game, as she began to be crushed, she thought “Maybe not,” and promptly lost 6-1, 6-1.

In her low-key manner, she told the media that she likes to lose because she “learns more from her losses” and she explained her third-round loss to Simona Halep at this year’s Aussie Open with a self-deprecating commentary: “I don’t know what I was doing. Because I’m so immature I start freaking out.”

And that’s sort of what happened today. Up 5-1 in the third set against No. 8 seed Madison Keys, Osaka collapsed as the No. 9 player in the world charged from behind to score a 7-5, 4-6, 7-6(3) win before a roaring pro-Keys American crowd.

A comparative veteran at age 21, Keys actively seized control of the match back from Osaka. At 2-5 down, she revved up her come-from-behind campaign by playing perhaps the most dynamic point of her career, storming the net and executing a pair of lunging volleys.

But as the stadium got more and more behind Keys, Osaka gradually lost control of her serve and forehand, botching volleys and wiping away tears as her huge lead vanished in a flash like a plate of sushi at midnight. She briefly collected herself to draw back even and force a tiebreak, but Keys kept the momentum and closed out the match.

Still, clearly this is not the close of Osaka’s career. Even if on this devastating day, in the biggest arena in tennis, she suffered a horrendous collapse, and with that lost some of her untempered delight.

Then again, she did tell us that she likes to lose because she learns. And many learned today what insiders long have known. Naomi Osaka is a delightful young talent who some day may raise a hefty trophy – and that sure would make all those folks named Osaka in Osaka mighty happy.