On Sunday, shortly after Naomi Osaka won the premier, mandatory tournament in Beijing (it’s the last top-tier, regular tour event of the year), she told the WTA podcast that she knew exactly what she wanted to accomplish during the fall Asian swing, declaring: “I had a clear, specific plan of what I wanted to do.”
Asked to elaborate on her “plan,” she said, “In my head, I was chanting ‘I will dominate.'”
It’s quite a plan. Simple. Effective. Airtight. It was conceived in the wake of perhaps the most painful loss in a year full of them for Osaka. As the defending champion at the US Open, she was beaten in straight sets in the fourth round by Belinda Bencic. In the wake of that defeat, she decided that her goal was to run the table for the rest of 2019, winning all three events she planned to play: Osaka, Beijing, Shenzhen (the WTA Finals).
Many might have scoffed at the goal a month ago, but Osaka is now two-thirds of the way there. It’s a noteworthy reversal for the 21-year-old, who said of her result back at Flushing Meadows in September: “Right now I have this feeling of sadness, But I also feel like I have learned so much during this tournament. … I feel like the steps that I have taken as a person have been much greater than I would imagine at this point. So I hope that I can keep growing. I know that if I keep working hard, then of course I’ll have better results.”
At the time, it sounded like an attempt by Osaka to salvage something — life lessons? — from the wreckage of a frustrating year.
Osaka earned the No. 1 ranking with her win at the Australian Open. But from that point until the beginning of the current Asian swing, she surrendered the top ranking, won no titles and compiled a record of 20-12. Her record in the three majors after she won Australia: 5-3. By the fall, it was easy to overlook the glowing ember of determination buried in the ashes of Osaka’s year of “growth.”
Osaka has been on fire since she arrived in her hometown a few weeks ago. She ripped through that Osaka draw without losing a set. Her momentum carried over to Beijing, where she lost a mere 15 games in a tournament that culminated with a masterful win in the final over No. 1 Ashleigh Barty.
Elina Svitolina is the only top-five player scheduled to play another event as the season winds down. The net result of this late-season surge by Osaka is that the prestigious year-end No. 1 ranking is back in play. Should she manage to lock that down, it will represent a startling rebound ending to a wild single-year journey unlike any other in recent tennis history.
Osaka’s adventures in 2019 are starting to read like a coming-of-age tale compressed into a 12-month span, awaiting only a happy ending. She won legions of hearts when she was cheated out of the joy she should have felt upon beating Serena Williams in the controversy-plagued US Open final of 2018. Osaka declared that her breakthrough major title was no fluke by winning the very next slam, the 2019 Australian Open.
The wheels began to wobble almost immediately. Shortly after her win in Melbourne, Osaka dismissed her coach, Sascha Bajin. The German coach had shepherded her from No. 72 in the world at the start of 2018 to No. 1 in the span of 12 months, but he lost Osaka somewhere along the way. She told the WTA website, “This is my life. I’m not going to sacrifice that just to keep a person around if I’m not waking up every day happy to practice and happy to be around [him].”
ESPN analyst Pam Shriver traces the dismissal of Bajin as the source of Osaka’s travails. She told ESPN.com: “I felt since the Australian Open that Osaka is unsettled, partly because of that coaching change. She was somewhat unhappy, and then later she was not always healthy enough to play her power game to her top ability.”
Following her rise to No. 1, Osaka didn’t win three successive matches at an event until the Madrid combined event. Her flow was interrupted by a thumb injury. Her French Open was a calamity. She lost in the third round to No. 42 Katerina Siniakova and suggested that might have been a good thing because she had been “overthinking” the prospect of becoming the fourth woman in tennis history to complete a Grand Slam. Then came the reality check.
Not only would there be no more Grand Slam titles this year for Osaka, but it also became increasingly clear that Osaka was having enormous trouble digesting her success. Two days before Wimbledon began, she said: “Mentally it [being No. 1] was way more stress and pressure than I could have imagined. I don’t think there was anything that could have prepared me for that.”
Osaka went out and lost in the first round at Wimbledon, cutting short her postmatch news conference and leaving the room in tears. She won just three matches between her French Open failure and the Cincinnati tournament (she retired during her quarterfinal with a bad knee). By then, the thought of Osaka having to defend her US Open title in the glare of the New York spotlight was enough to cause even a neutral observer to feel queasy.
The US Open was a disappointment, mitigated somewhat by the touching concern Osaka showed 15-year-old Coco Gauff after she dominated the tennis prodigy in the third round 6-3, 6-0. Osaka was winning hearts, but she was still struggling internally. Looking back on that low point, she recently said: “When I played my last match in the US Open, I know there was a part of me that held back. And for me, it’s just hard to unlock that part.”
The lock was sprung in Asia, where the highlight of Osaka’s week in Beijing was a must-see quarterfinal win over the latest WTA supernova, Bianca Andreescu. The Canadian 19-year-old toted a 17-match winning streak into the arena. On the way, she had collected the US Open title Osaka dropped and added to her formidable record against top players. Andreescu, who started the year ranked No. 106, won all eight previous meetings with top-10 players.
It took some 2 hours, 10 minutes of precise, fierce ballstriking by Osaka to beat Andreescu in one of the highlight matches of the year. The matchup forced Osaka to dig deep and call upon all her reserves of power, speed and — hardest of all — self-belief.
“I just told myself she’s the player that’s playing the most amazing tennis right now,” Osaka said after the win. “I just have to find a way to problem-solve during the match. My game plan going in was to be the more aggressive player. … Just trust myself, trust my serve, be aggressively consistent until I have the shot.”
“It seems like she’s found her confidence,” Shriver said. “She’s back to being healthy and her power, A-game is working again.”
The win also was a preview of a potentially riveting rivalry, the one thing missing from the WTA these days. The suggestion led Osaka to quip, “Listen, I don’t want to play her anymore. I’m good. One-and-done.”
In the smaller picture, the result was worth far more than a single “W” on the stat sheet for Osaka. If she manages to run the table this fall, the win over Andreescu will be viewed as the tipping point. Osaka said of the match: “For me it meant a lot because I kind of feel like people counted me out after the Europe thing. I’m just like, ‘I still won a slam this year. I won Tokyo. I’m still here.'”
She’s here, and her colorful, taxing journey might end right back where she started in January: at the very top.