In Madrid's second round, No. 2 Naomi Osaka falls to Karolina Muchova

In Madrid's second round, No. 2 Naomi Osaka falls to Karolina Muchova

The four-time Grand Slam champion has never been at her best on clay.

Momentum? Merely an illusion—a trick of the mind to let us think a tennis player is either about to charge ahead or fall behind. For an example of momentum’s ethereal qualities, dissect 20th-ranked Karolina Muchova’s 6-4, 3-6, 6-1 win today over world No. 2 Naomi Osaka in the second round of the Mutua Madrid Open.

Osaka had made a superb effort to level the match. Down a set and 3-1, she’d done what she does best: step up the volume on all fronts, starting with the sharp serves and deep returns that usually let her take command of rallies. The cumulative weight of increased accuracy, power and depth helped Osaka rattle off five straight games—the classic kind of comeback from a favorite that often triggers a final-set route.   

Consider, after all, that coming into this match, Osaka was 43-19 in three-setters, Muchova 14-12. One of those had happened the only previous time these two had met, Osaka winning last August at the Western & Southern Open. There too, Osaka had lost the first set, but eventually turned the tide, winning the match 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-2.

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This time, though, it went differently, the mix of the clay and a court-savvy Muchova frequently blunting Osaka’s power to alter the arc of many rallies. With Osaka serving at 0-1, 40-30 to start the third, Muchova rattled off three gems—a backhand down-the-line winner, a crosscourt backhand pass and a deep return that eventually helped her win that break point and take a 2-0 lead.

Though Muchova cracked the Top 20 for the first time just this week, her skills have been vivid for many months now. Earlier this year, she beat world No. 1 Ash Barty in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. Much like Barty, the 24-year-old Czech has an eclectic playing style, a game based on a rare mix of power, variety and precision, fueled by crisp footwork, a deft ability to take the ball on the rise, and an appetite for forward movement. Add to that a vicious drop shot, and it’s clear that Muchova has all it takes to twist and tangle opponents for years to come.

As Osaka said after the match, “there is not really a big flaw in her game. I also think she's a great mover.  So, yeah, she's like a really good package player.”

Certainly, Muchova had Osaka in a trance in the early stages of the match. Serving in the first set at 2-1, 30-40, Muchova served and volleyed, clipping a forehand volley crosscourt winner and showing complete comfort on the clay.  

Said Muchova, “in Czech since kid I was actually practicing on clay, so I'm kind of used to it. Yeah, now we play more on hard court, but I always look forward to play on clay and I like to slide and all these things. Yeah, it's kind of natural for me.” 

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Meanwhile, Osaka struggled to calibrate spin and placement. At 3-5, Osaka fought off a set point and eventually won the game. How would Muchova handle the pressure of serving out a set versus one of the most forceful returners in the game?  Magnificently: a backhand down-the-line winner; a brilliantly disguised untouchable backhand drop shot; and another backhand down-the-line generated three set points, Muchova closing it out on her second.

Much the same happened in the decider, though at a key stage, Osaka made Muchova’s task quite easy. With Muchova serving at 3-1, 30-30, Osaka struck a makeable forehand return long. On the next point, Osaka missed another facile return, this time lining a backhand into the net. A frustrated Osaka tossed her racquet and from there lacked her usual competitive conviction, dropping her serve at 1-4, then losing the last game at love.

“I was trying to move her as much as possible,” said Muchova.  “That was the tactic. Yeah, it sounds easy like that, but, you know, she's playing really fast so it's not that easy on the court. In the second set especially she started to be very aggressive. Yeah, I got back with what I did in the first set in the third set, and again, tried to move her left, right, drop shots but still in a fast way. In the third set, yeah, it went my way.”

And so, the clay court education of Naomi Osaka will continue. 

“I'm not sure how other players play,” said Osaka, “but I'm learning that on clay I can't afford to not swing through every ball, because that automatically takes me from offense to defense. And maybe if I start being able to move better I can risk starting to play on defense, but as of right now I think I should be the aggressor.”

Credit Muchova, though, most of all. To paraphrase an old saying, if you strike a queen, you must kill her. Muchova made the first move, then failed in the second set to finish. But in nearly seamless fashion, she regained her footing and earned a satisfying win. Momentum? Meaningless—at least today.