Wonder Twins Deactivate: What can Osaka & Tsitsipas learn from losses?

Wonder Twins Deactivate: What can Osaka & Tsitsipas learn from losses?

The most precocious stars of the last 12 months both lost in the first round at Wimbledon.

Earlier this year, Naomi Osaka and Stefanos Tsitsipas engaged in a little friendly banter between budding superstars.

After his early loss at Indian Wells in March, Tsitsipas said he was feeling burned out. When Osaka, who was the WTA’s new No. 1 player at the time, was asked if she ever felt the same way, she smiled, called Tsitsipas “Mr. Top 10,” and scolded him for playing too many tournaments. Tsitsipas, naturally, bantered back on Twitter: “Totally agree,” he wrote. “I really wish it was as simple as that...Mrs. #1. Best of luck.”

Over the last 12 months, Osaka and Tsitsipas, 21 and 20 respectively, have been the wonder twins of the pro tours. Osaka beat Serena Williams in the US Open final, won two straight major titles and spent 21 weeks at No. 1. Tsitsipas beat Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic on hard courts, and Rafael Nadal on clay, and climbed to No. 6 in the world. Osaka and Tsitsipas also couple their precocious results with precociously perceptive, intriguing and sometimes paradoxical personalities. She’s the wry introvert; he’s the self-dramatizing seeker. They’re both refreshingly honest, and their social-media games are, not surprisingly, as strong as their tennis games. Osaka and Tsitsipas are not afraid to admit their flaws and fears, or the fact that they both have a lot to learn about how to handle life on tour, and the glare of the spotlight.

Today their fears came true, as the wonder twins deactivated within an hour or so of each other at Wimbledon. Osaka, the No. 2 seed, lost to 39th-ranked Yulia Putintseva, 7-6 (4), 6-2 on Centre Court, while Tsitsipas went out to 89th-ranked Thomas Fabbiano, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, 6-7 (8), 6-3 on No. 2 Court.

What did Osaka and Tsitsipas learn during their brief time at Wimbledon this year? At the most basic level, they were reminded that virtually any player on the pro tour, or at least any player in the Top 100, is capable of beating anyone else on a given day. That can be doubly true at the Grand Slams, where everyone tries to peak. As much as I like to watch both Osaka and Tsitsipas, I enjoyed their opponents’ games more today.

Fabbiano, who had built some momentum with a semifinal run in Eastbourne last week, is a more-controlled version of his fellow Italian, Fabio Fognini. The backwards-capped Fabbiano teed off on every forehand, nearly ran himself into the stands chasing down balls, and played the whole match with a smile and a swagger. Even after he squandered match points in the fourth set, Fabbiano bounced right back and kept firing, as if he was destined to win the match eventually.

“He was just better than me today,” said Tsitsipas, who beat Fabbiano at Wimbledon last year. “I think the way I played, it should have been in three, not five...He improved a lot on his forehand. It’s very uncomfortable. You basically have to guess where he’s going to play.”

As usual, Tsitsipas was honest, and melodramatically hard on himself.

“I am disappointed now,” he said. “People expected things from me. I didn’t deliver. When you get so much support, so much energy, so much positivity from everyone, and you just ruin everything by yourself, it’s devastating.”

Where Fabbiano impressed with his casual power, Putintseva impressed with her finesse and stubbornness. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise; Putintseva had won their two previous matches in straight sets. Despite being half a foot shorter, Putintseva’s mix of looping topspin and biting slice keeps the ball out of the power-hungry Osaka’s strike zone. When Osaka gave her a short ball, or even just a mid-court ball, Putintseva carved under it with a diabolical underspin and sidespin. Osaka jumped out to an early lead, and looked dialed in, but Putintseva slowly but surely dialed her back out.

“She mixes the ball up really well,” a downcast Osaka said of Putintseva afterward. “I just don’t think I played that well. But I wasn’t surprised, because I’ve played her, like, twice already.”

Osaka began her press conference in a voice barely above a whisper, and ended it on the verge of tears.

“The key for me was just, like, having fun, I guess, like learning how to have fun, kind of taking pressure off myself,” she said when asked how she has bounced back from bad losses in the past. “I hope I can somehow find a way to do that.”

After hearing the next question, about the difficulties of fame, Osaka said, “Can I leave? I feel like I’m about to cry,” and walked out.

Tsitsipas and Osaka are both struggling to find a consistency that their heroes—Federer for him, Serena for her—have made look easy over the course of their careers. Osaka, a go-for-broke power hitter, will probably always be prone to cold streaks. Tsitsipas, a player who relies on variety rather than pace, will probably always be vulnerable to a hot opponent who can take his magic wand out of his hand.

Both of them have shown that they can embrace the big stage and beat the big opponent. Maybe the key is for them to find a way to play their early-round matches with the same intensity and joy that they bring to their finals. Maybe the key is longer-term: more steadiness from her, more weaponry from him. Or maybe no one will ever be as consistently brilliant as Federer and Serena again.

For now, at 21 and 20, Osaka and Tsitsipas have more assets than deficits to their games. They have a lot to learn, but they seem willing to learn it. Their 2019 Wimbledon is over, but the wonder twins have plenty of time to activate again.