Naomi Osaka’s last tennis match of 2021 came in the third round of the US Open. She lost to Leylah Fernandez in a dramatic three-setter, the young Canadian fighting back to beat the defending US Open champion, 5-7, 7-6 (2), 6-4.

In trademark fashion, in her post-match press conference, Osaka thoughtfully took responsibility for what happened, including a mid-match racquet toss. “Yeah, I'm really sorry about that,” she said. “I'm not really sure why. I was telling myself to be calm, but I feel like maybe there was a boiling point. Like normally I feel like I like challenges. But recently I feel very anxious when things don't go my way, and I feel like you can feel that. I'm not really sure why it happens the way it happens now. But, yeah, it's basically why. You could kind of see that. I was kind of like a little kid.”

As the press conference neared its conclusion, Osaka addressed the broader issues that had also surfaced for her throughout 2021. “Basically I feel like I'm kind of at this point where I'm trying to figure out what I want to do,” she said, “and I honestly don't know when I'm going to play my next tennis match.” At which point, Osaka began to cry, added that she planned to take a break from tennis, and then left the room. By the end of 2021, Osaka had played only 24 matches (18-6)—compared to 51 in the pre-pandemic year of 2019.


UNSTRUNG: Naomi Osaka in Spotlight Complexities


As far as Osaka’s 2021 tennis year goes, there were strong and familiar moments of glory. Beyond the lines, though, Osaka might well have accomplished something more heroic, bringing attention to life’s psychological challenges. “It’s O.K. To Not Be O.K.” read the headline of Osaka’s July Time Magazine cover story. “It has become apparent to me,” wrote Osaka, “that literally everyone either suffers from issues related to their mental health or knows someone who does.”

Osaka kicked off her 2021 tennis season impressively. In February, at the Australian Open, she sought to regain the title she’d first won in 2019. In 2020, Osaka had lost there in the third round to Coco Gauff. Over the course of two weeks in Melbourne, Osaka was highly focused and played some of the best tennis of her career. In the round of 16, Osaka took on Garbine Muguruza in one of 2021’s finest matches. Serving at 3-5, 15-40 in the third set, Osaka fired an ace. A powerful forehand helped her win the next point. Eventually, Osaka won, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5. “In the stressful points,” she said afterwards, “I feel like I just had to go within myself.” All other Osaka matches were won in straight sets, including a 6-3, 6-4 semifinal victory over Serena Williams and a 6-4, 6-3 win versus Jennifer Brady in the final. For the second time in her career, Osaka had completed the feat of following up a US Open win with a victory at the next major she played.

The spring clay-court season proved frustrating, Osaka losing two of her three pre-Roland Garros matches. But only the most ill-informed observer dares think Osaka lacks the skills to soon enough play well on the dirt. Contemporary clay-court tennis tilts largely around one of Osaka’s greatest assets: racquet head speed and the attendant ability to hit the ball through the court. So surely, comfort on the clay and success at Roland Garros was simply going to be a matter of acquiring tennis’ age-old mix of experience and confidence.

Then came major news. Osaka’s announcement that she was going to skip post-match press conferences at Roland Garros triggered a dissertation-worthy crossfire of messages from all corners of the planet. After winning her opening match, Osaka opted to withdraw from the tournament. The global dialogue grew even louder. And soon enough, Osaka’s 2021 took on a very different dimension. She did not play Wimbledon. Later in July, Osaka arrived in Tokyo to compete in the Olympics. That trip was also highlighted by Osaka becoming the first tennis player to light the Olympic cauldron. There she lost in the round of 16 to Marketa Vondrousova, a defeat somewhat validated by the left-hander eventually earning a silver medal.


The next month, in New York, Osaka was eager to defend her US title and win it for the third time. Osaka’s 2020 victory had seen her impressively balance tennis with social activism. This year, after winning her first match over Patricia Maria Tig, Osaka earned a walkover victory over Ana Bogdan. As Osaka herself later admitted, a win like that does not help sharpen one’s competitive skills. So it was that versus Fernandez, Osaka scratched for form.

As recently as March 2018, Osaka had yet to win a WTA singles title and was ranked 44th in the world. Since then, she’s won four majors, held the number one ranking and become a distinct 21st century crossover cultural icon, inspiring millions with her candor and capacity for vulnerability. No contemporary tennis player more personifies Boris Becker’s statement that a pro tennis player’s life can best be measured in dog years.

Thirty years from now, when Osaka is in her 50s, how will she regard the events of her complicated 2021? A tipping point on the way to joy? The first major step away from tennis? Or a respite, a chance to take a breath and in time resume? Many questions. We await the answers.