Naomi Osaka feels pressure and privilege of being new Grand Slam champ

by: Steve Tignor | October 05, 2018

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WATCH—Naomi Osaka continues to dominate:

We’ve seen a lot of players do the “I’m-not-impressed” dance after missing a shot. They put their hands on their hips, move their lips to one side of their face, and shake their head in frustration. But Naomi Osaka is the first one I’ve seen continue to look unimpressed even as she began the next point.

Early in her quarterfinal against Zhang Shuai on Friday in Beijing, Osaka drilled a first serve into the net. As she tossed the ball and began her second-serve motion, she had stopped shaking her head, but she still had her lips pushed to one side of her face, McKayla Maroney-style.

It was that kind of pessimistic day for the 20-year-old Osaka, who lost the first set, fell behind in the second, and trailed 1-4 and 3-5 in the third, before rallying to win 3-6, 6-4, 7-5. Osaka wiped away tears multiple times, sat with a towel over her head on changeovers—she kept it on even when she took a drink of water—and seemed to spend half her time with her visor pulled down over her face in mortification.

After coming back from the brink of defeat in the second set, she was still inconsolable. Her coach, Sascha Bajin, spent the changeover struggling to convince her that she could still play pretty well, and that everyone has days like this.

“Do you think this happens a lot?” Osaka asked Bajin, in her most tentative voice.

It was as if she had forgotten what a bad day felt like. But that’s tennis: Just because you’ve faced down Serena Williams in the US Open final, and just because you’ve been woodshedding your opponents in general this fall—she had dropped a total of four games in her last two matches—doesn’t mean that it all can’t fall apart again. By the middle of the second set, Osaka had grown so frustrated that she was hitting her second serve harder than her first, throwing borderline-hopeless drop shots high into the air, and barely moving at the baseline. She seemed to be one lost point away from going full Nick Kyrgios.

“I guess I stopped thinking about winning or losing too much,” Osaka said afterward. “I just thought that the way I’m acting right now, I’m probably going to regret it if I don’t change it.”

Osaka eventually changed her behavior. By the third set, she was fist-pumping, and, for the first time all day, moving her feet in the aggressive fashion to which we’ve become accustomed since she hired Bajin. There’s pressure in being a Grand Slam champ, much of it self-imposed: “Why can’t I play the way I did against Serena?” will be something Osaka has to learn to avoid thinking.

But there’s also a privilege that comes with winning a major, a very useful privilege: It suddenly becomes a much bigger, and more nerve-wracking, deal to beat you. Zhang had beaten Osaka in straight sets the last time they played, in Madrid in May. But that was before Osaka became a world-famous cool customer in New York. This time, whenever Zhang built a lead, she grew tight, missed routine shots and threw in double faults at exactly the worst moments.

Did Osaka “do what champions do” to come back? In one sense, yes: Like Serena and Novak Djokovic, she showed that she has the ability, when she swings away and doesn’t care where the ball goes, to crack clean winners anyway. Like them, her superior athleticism can make her just as dangerous after she pulls the mental ripcord. Zhang, who couldn’t match that athleticism, had no way to stop her.

We don’t know if winning a Grand Slam title will turn Osaka into a different, better player. What we do know is that her opponents will perceive her differently, and sometimes, like on Friday, that will be enough.

ATP Beijing & Tokyo (Sep. 30-Oct. 7)
- Tennis Channel PLUS has every ATP match live, from the first round to the final. Watch up to three courts from Beijing and two from Tokyo. 

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