“Scintillating is not the word that I would use to describe this match,” ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe said near the end of Naomi Osaka’s 6-2, 5-7, 6-2 win over Misaki Doi in the first round at the US Open on Monday.
There was some truth to McEnroe’s words, but it was hard to tell whether it was the match itself that failed to scintillate, or whether we were just too aware of what was missing from it. Namely, fans in the stands, and the energy that only a night session at the US Open can bring.
But that’s tennis in 2020, and at this point we should consider ourselves lucky to see any of it. On a different night in New York, with a proper audience and atmosphere, this uneven contest between two dice-rolling shot-makers from Japan might have made for quality entertainment.
At 5'3" inches, Doi gives up seven inches to Osaka, but she stood toe-to-toe with her from the baseline, held her own in the winner count, and pushed the match to a third set. Doi’s forehand was the highlight of the night. The lefty hit winners with it crosscourt, down the line, and inside out. If there was an opening somewhere on the court, chances are she was going to find it with her forehand.
But seven inches is seven inches, and Doi, as so often happens with her, had to work too hard to make up for the size and natural power that she gave away. Refusing to back off the baseline, she stubbornly went for broke, even when a safer rally ball would have been the prudent play. Eventually, the risk wasn’t worth the reward, and her errors ended up outnumbering her winners 38 to 17.
Osaka also committed 38 unforced errors and made just 51 percent of her first serves—she said afterward that she would need to practice her ball toss. Despite losing the second set and falling behind early in a couple of games in the third, though, she didn’t panic or start to rush or get down on herself. Instead, she went for depth rather than for outright winners, found her serve again, and never trailed down the stretch. The best news for Osaka may be that the injured hamstring that forced her to withdrawal from the Western & Southern Open on Saturday didn’t act up tonight.
Osaka is set to play Camila Giorgi on Wednesday. That will be another slugfest, and perhaps, as we get used to a US Open without fans, it will seem more scintillating than this one.
Tonight, Osaka wore a black mask on court with the name Breonna Taylor written in bright white letters across it. Taylor was killed by police in Louisville in March. Osaka says she has six more masks with six different names on them, and says she hopes we’ll get to see them all. For a young athlete finding her way as an activist, it’s hard to think of anything more motivating.