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Weekend Wrap: Osaka, Djokovic, Thiem show off hard-court skills
The top-seeded Serbian put on a clinic in Tokyo, while the 21-year-old Japanese and the top-seeded Austrian lifted the Beijing trophies.
Published Oct 06, 2019
You can’t go home again, they say. Just don’t tell that to Naomi Osaka.
Last month, the 21-year-old native of Japan returned to her home city, Osaka, with her father and first coach, Leonard Francois, in her corner again. The result was her first title in nine months. This week, Osaka traveled to Beijing, with dad still doing double-duty as coach, and won one of the WTA’s most important events, the China Open. Along the way, she beat two recent Grand Slam champions, Bianca Andreescu and Ash Barty. Osaka started the 2019 season at the top of her game; now she looks as if she’s going to end it in the same place.
“For me, this was my goal,” Osaka said. “After I lost the US Open—I pretty much don’t want to say I planned—but I really meditated on it. It just feels like I accomplished what I set out to do.”
“I just really wanted to win here. I felt like I had something to prove.”
Osaka said something similar after her win in Japan. But that feeling of needing to prove something to herself again after a long stretch of disappointment—this year she has split with two coaches and made early exits from three majors—carried over to Beijing. The fact that she had a chance to face Andreescu and Barty might also have served as motivation. It was Barty who took the No. 1 ranking from Osaka this summer, and it was Andreescu who took her US Open title, as well as her unofficial position as the Next Big Thing in women’s tennis, this fall. In Beijing, Osaka dropped the first set to both of them, before digging deeper.
“In the first set, honestly all I could think of was how much I wanted to win,” Osaka said after the final against Barty. “That made me very emotional. I think that was pretty obvious. I think you can see that from the outside. In the second set, I just tried to rationalize everything. Then in the third set, just continue what I was doing in the second.”
In Japan, Osaka won by challenging herself and firing herself up at all times. In Beijing, she was forced to take the opposite approach. Against Andreescu and Barty, she was impatient and overly aggressive to start; she had more success once she dialed her emotions and aggression back.
That’s where Osaka’s father came in. In both matches, she called him out after the first set, and both times he gave her similar advice: Be patient, be consistent, play your game and let the result take care of itself. What was more interesting was what Francois added at the end of his chats. In the Andreescu match, he said, “I believe in you.” In the Barty match, he said, “I trust you.” The words were both a confidence-boosting reassurance, and a prod to his daughter to find a way to solve the problem herself. They worked.
Could a father-daughter coaching partnership continue to work? Could Francois, and his unsurpassed knowledge of what makes Naomi tick, be the answer for her? We’ll see. What we know for now is that Osaka is back on her tennis feet; even better, we know that she takes enough pride in her status as a top player to make sure she keeps it.
“For me, I just do what I’ve been doing for, like, 21 years, which is play tennis,” Osaka said. “That’s the main thing for me. That’s the thing I’ve done every day of my life and what gives me most joy.”
Tennis is better when Osaka is feeling that joy.
The clean hitting. The clutch serving. The perfectly measured drop-shot and down-the-line winners. The routine score lines. The trophy at the end of the tournament.
Yes, Novak Djokovic was back. He ended his debut week at the Rakuten Japan Open with his 76th career title, laid to rest any injury fears that may have cropped up after his US Open retirement, and learned a little about playing in Tokyo, where he’ll try to win his first Olympic gold next summer.
“It was a fantastic week in every sense; I felt great on the court,” Djokovic said beating John Millman 6-3, 6-2 in the final. “Didn’t drop a set, played really well, served great. Just overall, a great experience.”
After Djokovic retired against Stan Wawrinka at the Open, he sounded upbeat about his chances on the Asian swing in the fall. That came as a surprise to me; he had just been forced to abandon his quest for a 17th major title because of shoulder tightness that had been bothering him for the better part of a month, and yet here he was, immediately talking about how well he expected to do in a few weeks. I wondered: Was he bluffing?
Obviously not. While Djokovic didn’t face any Top 10 competition in Tokyo, he was never troubled in any of his five matches. From what I saw, there were no blow-ups, and little of the frustration that he usually shows, even when he’s winning. As Djokovic said in New York, this has historically been a productive part of the year for him, and now that the stress of the majors is over, he seemed to reset again this week. Opportunity should abound for him at the Shanghai Masters 1000 this coming week, now that the man he is chasing for the No. 1 ranking, Rafael Nadal, has pulled out.
“This definitely was a level higher than the last couple of months,” Djokovic said. “Hopefully I can maintain it.”
The ATP’s version of the China Open wasn’t, technically, the Next Gen Finals. But it had that kind of feel. With none of the Big 3 in attendance, and a healthy number of young players in the field, the event looked like a potential preview of Grand Slams to come. You have to figure that at least one of the tournament’s semifinalists—Dominic Thiem, Karen Khachanov, Alexander Zverev, and Stefanos Tsitsipas—will win a major or two someday. Right?
At 26, Thiem no longer qualifies as Next Gen, but he’s still young by today’s ATP standards. In this era of men’s tennis, the kids (mostly) respect their elders, so maybe it wasn’t a surprise that Thiem, the oldest and most accomplished of the final four in Beijing, came out the winner. But it wasn’t easy. After knocking out Andy Murray in the quarters, Thiem edged Khachanov 7-5 in the third set in the semis, and came back from a set and a break down to beat Tsitsipas 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 in the final. If there was a surprise, it was that Thiem did all of this on hard courts. Of his 15 career titles, 10 have come on clay.
Thiem was justifiably proud of the way he fought his way through on something other than his favorite surface.
“It feels great because today was for me one of the best matches I’ve played in my life,” Thiem said. “Game-style wise and also how I came back, it’s definitely one of my biggest titles because the tournament was so strong.”
Does Thiem sound like he’s exaggerating? He has, after all, been to two Roland Garros finals. But in the way he competed, and the way he responded to a lively finals-day atmosphere in Beijing, this did feel like a step forward. Thiem broke back in the middle of the second set, and then survived several long, tense games with the match in the balance. Each time, he came out on top, and he did it like a true fast-courter, by seizing the initiative.
“I think today I never went so much to the net in one match before,” said Thiem, who finished 17 of 25 there. “It’s the right thing to do. I think it’s very important to shorten up points, to finish points at the net.”
In March, Thiem’s win over Roger Federer in the Indian Wells final felt like a hard-court breakthrough. Maybe, looking back, it was just a step forward, and this was another; in this era of old-guard dominance, it takes a lot of steps to make it to the top. But I like the fact that Thiem seems to regard his China Open win as an important advance in his career. Like anything else, if he believes he can win in hard courts, and believes that being more aggressive is the key, he’ll be one step closer to doing it all the time.