The Osaka Odyssey

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

Paris

OSAKA FALLS IN PARIS: Even in defeat, Naomi Osaka fascinates.The iconic and at times enigmatic star won four Grand Slams in 28 months. She was No. 1 and became the richest woman in sports. Most figured she’d dominate. But since winning the 2021 Australian Open there have been more doubts, detours and Netflix dramas than on-court triumphs.

Of course, she did become one of the most intriguing figures in sports. She advanced conversations on racial justice and mental health and now she’s opened her own player agency. She also reached the Miami Open final in April, but since her 2021 Australian Open triumph, she hasn’t gotten beyond the third round of a major. In January in Melbourne, she had two match points against Amanda Anisimova, but faltered.

Anisimova, who surged to the French Open semis in 2019, has had her problems too. Her father and coach Konstantin had a fatal heart attack a week before the 2019 US Open. He was just 52. She herself has had injuries, COVID and bad draws. But her powerful talent didn’t go away.

Today she imposed her game on the older, more celebrated Osaka. Anisimova’s returns were lasers, and her backhands left Osaka hapless. As rain fell, so did Naomi’s hopes, as she lost 7-5, 6-4. She’s never gotten beyond the third round in Paris and hasn’t won a Wimbledon match since 2018. Last year coming into the French Open she was No. 2.

Still, Naomi is one of the most recognized and beloved figures in international sports. God knows how many magazine covers she’s graced, and no one in tennis does press conferences like Naomi. (In nine years she evolved from a whimsical, wide-eyed innocent to a fearful skeptic who now is far more open and speaks thoughtfully with reporters.)

Today the Paris press corps, as usual including many Japanese members, packed the interview room where Naomi, in her gentle reflective voice, said she regretted playing only two clay court matches this year. She reported that she was playing with pain killers today and struggled with her Achilles tendon in the second set. She’s leaning towards not playing Wimbledon, because without points it feels like an exhibition, and she reported that she intensely filters her social media. After a loss, she doesn’t look at her messages for three days.

Then Naomi got philosophical. “I’m sad about how I did here,” she said. “I wish I could have done much better…In my head I was going to do great here and great in Madrid and Rome. [But] I think the fun part about life is that there are so many unexpected things. You can’t expect everything to be just as you planned. That kind of tests my character, so I’m going to try to regroup…I don’t regret anything.”

Osaka will now be leaving Paris, but questions remain. Has her aura of invincibility been dented? Has the field caught up with the once dominant player? Does her game have enough variety? Amidst all her other interests, has tennis become a bit secondary? Is she still hungry? Is she willing to grind? Or is Naomi still Naomi, and when she gets back on hard courts will she again prove what a tennis wonder she is?

HOW IS RAFA GOING TO DEAL WITH THIS? Throughout his career the delightfully obsessive Rafa Nadal has fidgeted with his water bottles during changeovers. Now, in an environmental move, plastic bottles have been banned. All of tennis now wonders how Rafa will adjust. 

KNOW THE RULES: Argentina’s Camilo Ugo Carabelli didn’t know there was a new tiebreak rule and wasn’t aware that he won his match over Aslan Karatsev, 10-5, in the first super tiebreaker ever at Roland Garros.

TRENDING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION: Britain’s Harriet Dart lost 6-0, 6-0 in the first round of the Australian Open. Today she lost 6-0, 6-2 to Italian Martina Trevisan.

PARIS NIGHTS LIGHT UP: The US Open began separate night sessions decades ago. Now the French Open is starting its own night matches – but there will be just one match per night. The plan was to start them at 9 PM, but critics wondered whether Parisians would really stay up till 1 AM watching tennis. So the authorities made a huge concession and changed the start time to 8:45 PM. It will be interesting to see how many women’s matches will be selected for the evening sessions.   

GO FIGURE: Iga Swiatek, who won in 52 minutes this morning, and has now prevailed in 29 straight matches. But don’t forget that Martina Navratilova won 73 in a row…Rafa Nadal and Peng Shuai were named among Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2022. 

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES: The move by the ATP and the WTA to not provide ranking points for Wimbledon has proven to have substantial consequences at many levels. Some have asked whether the groups are, in an unintended way, punishing their own members.

THE TEARS OF BARBORA KREJCIKOVA: Things were going well for Barbora Krejcikova. She was coming back from a serious elbow injury, she’d just signed a contract with Fila, she had a promising Roland Garros draw and raced to a 6-1 opening set win over a French youngster, 19-year old Diane Parry, ranked No. 97.  But early in the second set, Barbora said, “I just collapsed…I hit the wall.” She lost 12 of the next 17 games and, almost in a flash, the Czech who came out of nowhere to take the French Open last year was bumped out of the tourney.

The French crowd was not kind to the defending champion. They booed her when she returned from a bathroom break following the second set. But here’s a newsflash: the media was quite kind to her. One reporter said, “I feel sorry to see you emotionally taken by this match…Can you tell us about what you have been thinking and dreaming over the past year and how beautiful that was?” Krejcikova was touched. She teared up and left the interview.  

KUDOS TO FRITZ: Californian Taylor Fritz ground out a gutsy 7-6 (2), 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 win over Argentine Santiago Fa Rodriguez Taverna, despite howling Argentine fans supporting their man on Court 6. Ironically, Fritz was wearing a shirt with Argentinian colors. 

AMERICA WATCH: Along with Taylor Fritz, Californians Mackie McDonald (Piedmont) and Brandon Nakashima (San Diego) moved on. McDonald needed four sets and Nakashima was extended to a fifth set before gutting out a 6-4 final set against Poland’s Kamil Majchrzak. No. 17 seeded Reilly Opelka lost in straight sets to Filip Krajinovic and Max Cressy fell in five to Nikoloz Basilashvili. Alison Riske was a straight-set winner over Ukrainian Dayana Yastremska. Seb Korda and Tommy Paul play later today and Katie Volynets and Madison Keys play later on the women’s side.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: A voice just outside the press room rejoiced: “Oh, my God, sunshine.”    

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