Top10Matches_2021-9-wide

Over the next two weeks, we'll run down our Top 10 Matches of the 2021 season. On Monday, No. 10 was unveiled.

“I’ve never played against someone who beat me when I was really trying hard,” a self-assured Naomi Osaka said when she was in the middle of a 23-match, 13-month win streak last year.

The ironclad belief that Osaka developed during that time—February 2020 to March 2021—may have been best illustrated by her 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 win over Garbiñe Muguruza in the fourth round at the Australian Open. Osaka trailed virtually the entire way, went down a break in the each of the last two sets, and faced two match points at 3-5 in the third. But none of it was enough to shake her confidence that, at least for one brief shining moment in time, she was unbeatable.

The first career meeting between Osaka and Muguruza felt like a Grand Slam final, and it brought a prize-fight atmosphere to Rod Laver Arena. Each woman was a major champion—Osaka had three, Muguruza two—and each a former No. 1. Neither had dropped a set in their first three rounds. It seemed as if there was a good chance the winner would go on to win the tournament. From the start, these two power-first players did what they do best: Hit the ball as hard as they could at each other.

“I felt like I was a bit intimidated because I knew that she was playing really well coming into this match,” Osaka said.

“I felt like I couldn’t hit any ball at a slower pace, or else she would immediately move me.”

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It seemed as if there was a good chance the winner would go on to win the tournament.

The pattern—Muguruza jumps ahead, Osaka hangs on for dear life—was set right away. Muguruza broke Osaka in the opening game and went up 2-0, before Osaka leveled at 2-2. The same thing happened at the start of second set. Again Muguruza broke and went ahead 2-0; this time, with a set and break lead, it looked as if she might run away with the match. But again Osaka responded with service aces and forehand winners to break back. She broke again on a reflex forehand return with Muguruza serving at 4-5. Suddenly, a match that Muguruza seemed to be dominating was level at one set each.

“I think that’s something you get when you play a Grand Slam champion,” Osaka said. “For me, that’s where I play the best because I feel like I’m pushed really hard.”

In the third set, Osaka was pushed to the limit. Once more, Muguruza broke early and built a lead; this time she reached 5-3, 15-40, double match point on Osaka’s serve. And that’s when Osaka’s confidence kicked back in. She saved one match point with an ace. She saved another with a powerful forehand. She held with an ace. From there, Osaka, who had been spraying unforced errors for most of the afternoon, didn’t make another as she ran away with the last four games and the win.

“I felt the entire match I was overthinking,” Osaka said. “There was a moment when I got angry and, like, hit my racquet on the ground. I feel like I released a lot of the thoughts that I had. It just made me go more into, like, instinct-based tennis.”

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VIDEO FLASHBACK: Osaka completes comeback Down Under

You might think Muguruza would have been shell-shocked by having victory snatched away so brutally and abruptly. But she said otherwise.

“Really the difference I feel like it was one point,” Muguruza said. “Is never a good feeling losing a match that you feel you could change in one second. But I left the court with a good feeling, very good feeling of this tournament in general.”

Muguruza would keep that good feeling for another month, reaching the final in Doha and winning the title in Dubai. After dropping off for a few months, she would regain her early-season swagger at year’s end, when she won titles in Chicago and at the WTA’s season-ending championships in Guadalajara.

Osaka would keep her own good feeling from this match for the rest of the tournament, which she would win for her fourth major title. But her aura of invincibility would be punctured a month later in Miami, where she lost in a lackluster performance against Maria Sakkari. From there, Osaka would go just 5-5 for the rest of the year. She would pull out of Roland Garros, skip Wimbledon, and lose in the third round at the US Open. Citing mental-health issues, she pulled the plug on her season in September.

Will we see the 24-year-old scale the heights of invincibility again? Will we see her play in 2022? The answers remain a mystery at the moment. For now, all we can do is look back at her win over Muguruza and see just how good, and tough, and difficult to beat, Osaka can be at her best.