When Naomi Osaka withdrew from the final of the Western & Southern Open against Victoria Azarenka last weekend with a left hamstring injury, many skeptics wondered if she would even try to compete at the US Open. Hamstring issues can be awfully difficult to resolve. There were more than a few authorities who assumed that Osaka would not feel fit enough to make an all-out bid for a third career major singles crown.
But the 2018 US Open champion is made of much tougher stock than many observers realize. She refused to step aside. And now Osaka finds herself right where she wants to be. The No. 4 seed has reached the round of 16 at the tournament where she made headlines two years ago by toppling Serena Williams in the final for a landmark triumph.
This time around, the 22-year-old has had no facile path to the round of 16. She opened with a hard-fought, three-set victory over Misaki Doi. She followed with an emphatic 6-1, 6-2 dismissal of the daring Italian Camila Giorgi. But her third-round contest was another demanding skirmish that grew increasingly complicated after an auspicious start.
Osaka took on the 18-year-old Ukrainian Marta Kostyuk, an exploitive player ranked misleadingly at No 137 in the world. Kostyuk upended No. 31 seed Anastasija Sevastova in the second round. She had absolutely nothing to lose in her first career confrontation against Osaka. Kostyuk is an exceedingly big hitter and a free-wheeling player fond of knocking the cover off the ball. She also is never reluctant to come foreward, winning 19 of 23 points when she approached the net against Osaka.
And yet, Osaka appeared on her way to a comfortable victory as she set the tempo and took utter control of her service games from the start of the proceedings right up until the middle of the second set. Kostyuk struggled inordinately to handle Osaka’s heavy second serve kickers, and she had trouble reading Osaka’s first delivery—especially the one down the T in the deuce court. Meanwhile, Kostyuk was serving too many double faults, realizing that Osaka was going to sting her with piercing returns off both wings. The pattern of play seemed to be overwhelmingly favoring Osaka.
Bolstered by two double faults from Kostyuk, Osaka broke for a 3-2 first set lead. She then held from 15-30 for 4-2 on a run of three points in a row. Yet Kostyuk kept herself mentally in the match with some obstinate stands. She held from 0-40 in the seventh game of that opening set. After Osaka moved to 5-3, the Ukrainian player battled tenaciously again, fending off two set points and holding one game point before Osaka sealed the set with a second service break in the ninth game. The set went to Osaka 6-3, but Kostyuk made her work to finish it off. Despite making 18 unforced errors—10 more than Osaka—Kostyuk was starting to find her range at the end of the first set.
Kostyuk took a long break at the changeover that lasted more than eight minutes to get her ankle taped. A forehand inside-in winner at break point down helped her hold for 1-1 in the second set. In the fourth game, Kostyuk was even more obstinate, erasing six break points against her in a seven deuce game, holding on gamely for 2-2. At long last, Kostyuk found the formula to break Osaka in the seventh game of the second set. She altered her return of serve positioning and started attacking Osaka’s second serve.
Kostyuk moved into a 5-3 lead and nearly broke a disconcerted Osaka again in the ninth game before the No. 4 seed saved a set point and held on. Now Kostyuk was too aware of the score. She double faulted to fall behind 0-40 in the tenth game and was broken at 15 for 5-5. Both players held to set up a tie-break.
When Osaka went ahead 2-0 in that sequence, she seemed likely to get the job done in straight sets. But the audacious Ukrainian took the next four points and eventually succeeded seven points to four in that tie-break to make it one set all. Osaka was disillusioned, throwing her racket down on the court after losing that set, distressed by her inability to complete her task.
Osaka was in a serious bind. She trailed 1-2 in the third set and drifted to 0-40 in the fourth game. If she had been broken there, Osaka might well have lost this match. But she served an ace down the T for 15-40, laced a forehand winner up the line, and was fortunate when Kostyuk tamely netted a forehand second serve return. Kostyuk promptly garnered a fourth break point opportunity for 3-1, but Osaka took control and connected impeccably for a crackling forehand crosscourt winner. After four deuces, Osaka held on critically for 2-2.
Now Kostyuk was shaken. She double faulted twice to trail 0-40 in the fifth game and was broken at 30. Thereafter, Osaka relaxed and performed with controlled aggression the rest of the way. In the last three games, she conceded only one point. She took 19 of the last 22 points to close out the 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-2 account.
Afterwards, the quietly expressive Osaka shared her thoughts with ESPN. She said, “For me, I just feel like I had so many points that I didn’t capitalize on. I think when I went up I became a bit passive and then she came in because she has no fear. I was just thinking too much in the past, but in the third set I just kept my head in the present.”
Osaka conceded that she was exhausted after completing a draining victory on a scorching afternoon. “I am very tired right now,” she said. “I just want to go into an ice bath. I am not sure if this is classified as an emergency but I feel I am going to pass out.”
Yet before she left Arthur Ashe Stadium, Osaka praised her adversary. She said, “”For me it was kind of unavoidable [that it went three sets]. She was playing too good. While I was cursing at myself and you wouldn’t want to know what I was saying. I feel like I have to be more adept during the points instead of sitting down and thinking about it during the games. I should be thinking more while I am out there playing.”
Now it is incumbent on Osaka to keep raising her game as she heads into the heart of the tournament. The view here is that she will do just that. The good news is that her hamstring does not seem to be troubling her much at all. If she can stay healthy and find her best tennis down the stretch, if she can summon the drive and determination when she needs it most, Naomi Osaka is fully capable of capturing her second US Open crown.