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After a “huge struggle” last year, Amanda Anisimova is 8-0 after the biggest win of her career, over Naomi Osaka at the Australian Open
How the American stayed calm, used her second serve, and surprised the defending champion.
Published Jan 21, 2022
INTERVIEW: Amanda Anisimova, after her third-round win over two-time Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka looked ready to do what she had done so many times over the last five years: Fend off a determined opponent and find a way through a difficult Grand Slam match.
Over two hours of bang-bang play against Amanda Anisimova, Osaka had lost a set, and watched 40 winners fly past her. She had tried her best to catch up with the 20-year-old American’s surprising power, and tried her best to smile through the frustration that comes with facing that rare opponent who can out-hit her from the baseline. But the defending champion had persisted through it all, and now she was on the verge of advancing again.
With Anisimova serving at 4-5 in the third set, Osaka reached match point twice. Both times, she hit good, penetrating ground strokes. Both times, Anisimova hit at least one shaky shot that, on another day, might have landed out. But both times, in the end, Osaka rushed a backhand and drilled it into the net. Instead of a champion keeping her cool under pressure, it would be the upstart, the 60th-ranked Anisimova, who would find the right balance between patience and aggression in the deciding moments, and who would emerge with a 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (10-5) victory, the biggest of her career so far.
“I just want to soak in this moment,” Anisimova said. “I’m just extremely happy. It was an amazing match, it was very close…It sucks we couldn’t both win today.”
Statistics never tell the entire story, but three of them really stand out here. The first is the winner differential: Anisimova hit 46 to Osaka’s 21. The second is is the percentage of second-serve points won: Anisimova led 61 to 52. The third, and the most remarkable, is the return-winner count: Anisimova led eight to zero. Osaka, one of the game’s biggest hitters, couldn’t put one ball past Anisimova with her return, and could muster fewer than half as many winners overall.
“I think the pace of her ball surprised me,” said Osaka, who had never played Anisimova. “It’s not strong but it just comes fast. Like, I wouldn’t say it’s heavy, but it comes so quickly at me that I felt I didn’t really have time to set up and stuff. It just really is low to the ground.”
As Anisimova would note later, her first and second serves were the difference-makers. She hit 11 aces, but it was the number of double faults that may have been more significant. She had eight of them, which sounds bad, but it also means she was going for her second serve, and not letting Osaka get a leg up with her return.
“She has a really big game, so I knew that I really had to step it up and try to be as aggressive as I could,” Anisimova said. “I don’t know if I did that so well today, because in most of the moments I feel like she was more aggressive. I’m not really sure, but I think my serve is what really helped me today.”
With the defeat, Osaka will drop to No. 84 in the rankings. She’ll need to play much more than she did last year if she wants to be seeded for the other majors, but she says ready for the grind this time.
“I just want to go into this year, like, know that I’ll play the whole year and I’ll just have the greatest attitude ever,” Osaka said.
From that perspective, she thinks she’s off to a promising start, despite the defeat.
“I feel like I grew a lot in this match,” Osaka said. “The last match that I played in New York [a loss to Leylah Fernandez at the US Open], I think I had a completely different attitude, so I’m really happy with—you know, of course I lost, but I’m happy with how it went.”
Anisimova has already done a lot of growing in 2022. She's 8-0 so far, and has to feel good about her chances against top seed Ash Barty on Sunday. She credits new coach Darren Cahill with helping her to stay calm and not try to do too much.
“Yesterday I was kind of stressing myself out a little bit trying to play perfect,” she said. “He intervenes in those moments and tells me, ‘Just relax, and play the game that I know.’”
Anisimova played the game she knows when it mattered most on Friday. Where Osaka rushed when she had a chance to win, Anisimova stayed within herself. Up 8-5 in the deciding tiebreaker, she took a swing volley out of the air and coolly put the ball an inch inside the sideline for a winner. At 9-5, on her first match point, she reached back and hit her easiest-looking serve of the day—and her 11th ace.
“I just really wanted to see where my game is at and if I can handle it, like try to win today,” Anisimova said.
She handled it and she won. Her game is obviously in a good place, and should be going to better ones soon.