MELBOURNE—A wise woman once said she was never more serious than when making a joke.
Asked by chair umpire Manuel Absolu if she was OK, Osaka issued a humorous one-word reply: “No.” After the match, having taken nearly two hours to earn a 5-7, 6-4, 6-1 victory, Osaka addressed that moment less as battle-tested warrior and more as cheeky middle schooler.
“Yeah, that's just funny to me,” said Osaka. “He was like, Naomi, are you okay? I mean, I was, but I wanted to see his reaction if I said no.”
But the circumstances when Osaka’s prank occurred were indeed quite serious. Just a few minutes earlier, Hsieh was in complete control, serving at 7-5, 4-2, 40-love.
The way Hsieh had taken that lead was a textbook example of a fundamental tennis principle that is as natural as breathing in other sports, but often overlooked or misunderstood in tennis: Your goal as a competitor is to break up your opponent’s game. Players such as Hsieh and that devilish Frenchman from the recent past, Fabrice Santoro, do this in a way apparently overt but also subtle. As is written in “The Art of War,” “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable at night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”
Scarcely anyone in tennis can effectively trade blows with Osaka. Certainly Hsieh can’t. But a major benefit of Hsieh’s ability to hit with two hands off both sides is that she is extremely well-prepared and therefore able to disguise her intent. Why hurry when you can wait?
“She hits very different from everyone else,” said Osaka. “I can never really tell where she's going to put the ball. She hits down the line and then hits a weird crosscourt. It's very, very hard to have a rally with her.”
Through the early stages of this match and well into the second set, Hsieh didn’t so much force as coax. While Osaka’s groundstrokes sounded like rifle shots, Hsieh’s carefully caressed drives floated like butterflies, dispensed more as suggestions than demands. Think of Hsieh as that stockholder who holds but one share in the company and shows up to the annual meeting with one question, then another, then another. One shot at a time—here one crosscourt, another down the line, an occasional drop shot, a dollop of sidespin—hardly meant anything. But the cumulative effect was hypnotic.
Though the statistics say Osaka committed 20 unforced errors in the first set, that does little justice to the way Hsieh had gently shredded her technique. Serving at 2-3, love-40 in the first set, Osaka drove a backhand long and pounded a ball in frustration. Attempting to close out the opener when serving at 5-4, Osaka was broken when Hsieh took command of a 10-ball rally and elicited a backhand error. After Hsieh took the next game, Osaka shook her head, mildly exasperated. Any more questions? Are you finished yet? And when Hsieh broke Osaka at 5-6 to take the set, Osaka flung her racquet.
This was disruptive tennis at its finest. More from the “Art of War”—“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
But leave it to a rarified sport like tennis to marginalize the concept of disruption. “Crazy” was a word used by inquiring minds at Osaka’s post-match press conference. Let’s try another approach.
As my Tennis Channel colleague Martina Navratilova once told me, “It’s all disruption.” It can happen with consistency, with power, with placement, with court positioning. And, in a rather visual way despised by suffering players of all levels, it can happen when inflicted by the likes of Hsieh (or, for that matter, the beloved, regal master of all spins and speeds, Roger Federer).
World No. 1 Simona Halep was one victim of Hsieh’s subtle scythe last year at Wimbledon. Here in Melbourne 12 months ago, Hsieh had nearly taken out Angelique Kerber.
In her post-match press conference, describing what had happened today, Hsieh wrapped her hands around her neck, let out a laugh and shortly after said, “I was thinking a little too much.”
Hsieh’s serve, never a strong point, began to lose speed. The shots that had taken her to the precipice began to miss.
Credit Osaka for declining to vanish. From a place of massive frustration, Osaka showed improved maturity, perhaps the result of her increased off-court fitness regimen, perhaps fueled by her impressive results of the last 12 months, perhaps also aided by the fact that as the second born daughter, Osaka spent years constantly being beaten by her older sister, Mari. For make no mistake of this sober truth: Osaka’s charming, understated manner in press conferences belies the warrior within.
Most impressive of all was to witness Osaka’s movement.
Said Osaka, “But I just thought—I think it was just one break, so I was just thinking that I have to break her no matter what. Don't let her get a game after this moment, because I can't afford to lose any more games.”
Where once Osaka had been lethargic, now she moved with urgency. Where once Osaka had swung tentatively, now she committed. From 1-4 down in the second set, Osaka won 11-of-12 games to earn a spot in the fourth round here for the second year in a row.
Osaka’s next opponent will be another tricky disruptor, Anastasija Sevastova. The two have split their four matches, Osaka winning their most recent, two weeks ago in Brisbane 3-6, 6-0, 6-4. Based on that score, Osaka likely applied the same lessons from “The Art of War” she’d put in play today: “In the midst of chaos, there is always opportunity.”
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