Naomi Osaka was back on the tennis court in New York on Monday night, not far from where she first started hitting a tennis ball in earnest as a child, and where her year of years began 12 months and what seems like a lifetime ago.
The journey began with her refusal to play tennis after another police shooting of a Black man. Then came her provocative and powerful masks, each adorned with the name of a victim of police violence, as well as the third Grand Slam title of her career. Then there were magazine covers; a magical run in Australia; a standoff with the press in Paris; revelations that she struggles with mental health; her decision to skip Wimbledon, the biggest championship in tennis; followed by a triumphant-until-it-wasn’t return in Tokyo, where she lit the Olympic cauldron for her home country.
Osaka has become the rare tennis player whose presence raises the temperature, even of something routine: a first-round match against an unheralded but improving 23-year-old Czech named Marie Bouzkova.
If there is one thing Osaka has shown during her young career, it’s that nothing with her is routine.
She walked into a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday night as the defending champion and the No. 3 seed in the U.S. Open, a little more than six months removed from being declared virtually unbeatable on hard courts, where she has won each of her four Grand Slam titles.
She has the sort of résumé that generally makes a player a heavy favorite, not just to win her first match, but also to capture her third U.S. Open singles title in four years. In the back of the court, she bounces on her toes like a boxer and does her trademark thigh-whack as she awaits her opponent’s serve.
Steve Nash, the Hall of Fame basketball player and coach of the Brooklyn Nets, and Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight champion, were part of a crowd of nearly 20,000 that was far larger and more electric than the usual opening night of this 14-day tournament.
Would it have surprised if Osaka had lost, after the tumultuous ride she put herself on during the past year, and the mediocre results she produced this summer? She had played just nine matches since April and had a 5-5 record, including a default at the French Open.
She didn’t lose, but Osaka did grind through a tough first set against Bouzkova, battling to find her rhythm against the hard-hitting Czech. She had to save eight break points. But after splitting the first eight games, Osaka started pushing Bouzkova deep into the back of the court with her clean, powerful strokes and, not surprisingly, also started winning most of the important points. She reeled off eight of the next nine games for a 6-4, 6-1 win.
It was a far closer match than the score line suggested though, filled with tight games, long points and smash-mouth rallies, but also a more promising opening to her first Grand Slam in three months than the last time she undertook one of the sport’s most prized events.
In May, Osaka arrived in Paris for the French Open declaring that she would no longer participate in the mandatory news conferences that all players sit through after a match, win or lose, if their presence is requested. She said that they caused too much mental stress, and that she would pay tens of thousands of dollars in fines instead.
Within days, French Open organizers, with the support of leaders of the other three Grand Slam events, threatened to kick her out of the tournament. A day later, Osaka dropped out, announcing that she would take a break from the sport and telling the world that she had been battling depression on and off for nearly three years.
On Sunday, a little more than 24 hours before her opening match at the U.S. Open, another pretournament declaration arrived. This one was far less confrontational and more nuanced, but still packed a defiant jab at anyone who has criticized her recent subpar performances, at the French Open, or the Olympics, where she was beaten badly in the round of 16 by Marketa Vondrousova, another young and unproven Czech player, ranked 38th in the world.
In an Instagram post that she also shared on Twitter, Osaka said she had realized, upon reflection, that she is far too critical of herself.
“I think I’m never good enough,” she wrote. “I’ve never told myself that I’ve done a good job but I constantly tell myself that I suck or that I could do better.”
She urged people to value the smallest accomplishments, even getting out of bed and fighting off procrastination, and she committed herself to celebrating her own accomplishments more.
“Your life is your own and you shouldn’t value yourself on other people’s standards,” she wrote. “I know I give my heart to everything I can and if that is not good enough for some then my apologies, but I can’t burden myself with those expectations anymore. Seeing everything that’s going on in the world I feel like if I wake up in the morning that’s a win. That’s how I’m coming.”
Exactly what Osaka meant can sometimes be anyone’s guess. She is something of a tennis sphinx, insisting that the message that people receive from her is more important than whatever message she might be trying to deliver.
Also, she has admitted to a certain amount of impulsiveness. If she thinks or feels something, she may very well just say it, or write it, or do it, without thinking through all the consequences.
On Friday though, Osaka allowed that she plays far better when she is playing with a purpose beyond competing for another trophy and $2.5 million, the prize for winning the U.S. Open.
“I’m the type of player that plays better if I have a reason or if I have a goal or if I’m driven about something,” she said in a pretournament news conference. “In New York last year the biggest goal for me was just to push that message across. I feel like I did well there. Right now, I don’t really have that big of a message to push across at all. So it’s going to be really interesting to see what drives me.”
Osaka seems to have dialed in on a purpose — to play without beating herself up for every error, every missed opportunity, and, if it happens, another loss, even if the chorus of critics grows louder.
She has heard all the criticism, and she knows better than anyone that she has not made even a quarterfinal since March, much less a final of a Grand Slam. She knows how little she has played this year — remarkably little given her ranking and her stature as the winner of two of the last four Grand Slams, and four of the last 11.
This, she hopes, will be the Grand Slam when she begins to get over her obsession with perfection that leads to disappointment when something she does is great but not flawless. Amid all the thousands of screaming fans on Monday night in the biggest stadium in tennis, Osaka’s ear remained tuned to the high-pitched yelps of a small girl seated low beside the court.
“I just want to be happy with knowing that I did my best and knowing that even though I didn’t play perfect I was able to win a match in two sets,” she said after her win. “Or if I have to battle, play a match in three sets, knowing that I made a couple mistakes, but it’s OK at the end of the day because I’ll learn from the matches that I’ll keep playing.”
“It’s not really a tournament thing,” she added as the night drew to a close. “It’s more like a life thing.”
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