If you hadn’t watched any of this third-round contest, or followed the scores, you would have assumed he was referring to Osaka. That’s what No. 1 players and Grand Slam champs do, right? They raise their games at the crucial moments, they find the big serves to bail them out of trouble, they capitalize on their break points. That’s the thing, more than anything else, that makes them Slam champs in the first place. And that’s certainly what Osaka had done during her 16-match major-tournament win streak over the last 11 months. In her first two rounds at Roland Garros this week, she only began to find her form late in the second set—i.e., when she absolutely had to find it.
Except that on Saturday, Cowan wasn’t talking about Osaka; he was talking about her opponent, 42nd-ranked Katerina Siniakova. It was the 23-year-old Czech, who had never been past the third round at a major, who was rising to the pressure-filled moments. Most prominent among them were the seven break points that Osaka earned in the first set, and that Siniakova saved.
She saved three of them in one game, and then, serving for the set at 5-4, she came back from 0-40 to close it out. Siniakova saved them anyway she could: By scrambling, by defending, by throwing her body at the ball, by belting her roundhouse backhand, by using her drop shot. Top players enjoy, and are very good at, winning sets they probably shouldn’t have won; in this case, it was Siniakova who stole the first set and left Osaka shaking her head.
“I was trying to get her behind the baseline as much as possible,” Siniakova said, “and trying to just put so many balls in and just don’t give her easy points. I think it was really good and it was working, and I think her serve today wasn’t so good, so I was trying to use that second serve.”
It’s true, Osaka’s serve was off: She made just 52 percent of her first serves, and won just 48 percent of points on her second serve—that’s not a combination that makes life easy for any player. Despite serving the ball 10 miles per hour faster than Siniakova, Osaka had just one ace to the Czech’s three. Ultimately, Osaka was done in by her own inconsistency—she committed 38 unforced errors to Siniakova’s 13. Down the stretch, Osaka couldn’t keep the ball in the court long enough to let Siniakova get nervous.
Osaka said she was tired, she had a headache, her serve and her return were off, and so was her shot selection.
“Of course I knew I was flat,” she said. “I knew that if I stayed in the rallies on the forehand side, I would probably definitely, 99 percent of the time, win the rally. But for some reason I kept switching down the line and doing really weird stuff.”
Osaka’s emotions seemed to be in roller-coaster mode afterward.
First she said that, on a scale of 1 to 10, her disappointment level was “at a hundred right now.”
Then she said, “I think me losing is probably the best thing that could have happened. I think I was over thinking, this, like calendar Slam.” (You can’t fault her for lack of ambition.)
Osaka also admitted that the expectations had taken a toll. “I just feel like there has been a weight on me, kind of. And I know that’s because everything is, like, sort of new. Like, I have played the French Open before, but not in this circumstance or situation.”
Osaka’s loss was, more than anything, a surface-based situation; last year she beat Siniakova 6-4, 6-0 on a hard court. Osaka’s high-risk, high-reward game is suited to asphalt; on clay, her opponents can get an extra ball or two back, which means that Osaka’s risk level rises with each shot she hits. Yet this spring she made some strides, particularly with her movement, on dirt, and by the end of her presser she was looking on the bright side again.
“If I think about it, results-wise, I think this is definitely the best clay season I’ve had,” she said.
This was the third time Osaka has reached the third round at the French Open, but she has yet to go farther. She will.