This was by no means the best way it was supposed to go for Naomi Osaka, the most important new star in tennis, whose fame, attain and success appeared to don’t have any limits at the beginning of the yr.
Since then, Osaka has skilled a collection of setbacks and losses so overwhelming that she mentioned after the most recent one, on Friday night time at the U.S. Open, that she didn’t know when she would play her subsequent tennis match.
Osaka misplaced in three tight and unusually temperamental units to a rising, unseeded 18-year-old Canadian named Leylah Fernandez within the third spherical of the Open that Osaka gained a yr in the past.
Then, in her post-match information convention, she started to tear up, giving the world, by a small group of journalists and a financial institution of tv cameras, one other troubling portrait of the frame of mind of a lady who would seem to have every little thing — cash, fame, glamour, the admiration of thousands and thousands of followers on a number of continents.
“How do I go around saying this,” Osaka started, choking again tears, however laying aside a information convention moderator who tried to give her reduction as she started to tear up. “I feel like for me recently, when I win I don’t feel happy, I feel more like a relief. And then when I lose I feel very sad. And I don’t think that’s normal.
“This is very hard to articulate,” she continued after accumulating herself. “Well, basically. I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match.”
The prospect of Osaka stepping away from the game indefinitely will undoubtedly ship shock waves by the tennis-sphere. The daughter of a Japanese mom and a Haitian father who’s a citizen of her native Japan, although she was raised largely within the United States, Osaka is the world’s highest-paid feminine athlete, one of many largest celebrities in sports activities, and a quiet, highly effective embodiment of a brand new era of athletes who’re unafraid to share their views on civil rights and social justice.
Just weeks in the past, Osaka acquired one of many highest honors in all of sports activities — lighting the cauldron at the Olympic Games in her residence nation, the place she has come to signify a brand new, multiracial future for Japan.
As it typically can, although, all of that has come at a value that followers have change into all too aware of lately: an immense stress to carry out that may bother an individual of any age.
Osaka, 24, took a break earlier this yr, when she dropped out of the French Open over a confrontation with match organizers over whether or not she would seem at her post-match information conferences, which she mentioned prompted an excessive amount of psychological anguish for her and her fellow gamers.
Her fellow gamers have been largely sympathetic however didn’t observe her lead, and after she was fined for skipping her obligatory media duties, she defaulted her second-round match, telling the world she had been experiencing “long bouts of depression” since 2018 and could be taking a while to cope with her psychological well being. She skipped Wimbledon however returned for the Olympics, the place she misplaced within the third spherical and didn’t win a medal.
Last month in Mason, Ohio, in her first information convention in three months, she misplaced composure and briefly left the room the place the distant interview session was being carried out, after a query about how she may stability her resistance to information conferences with the truth that her outdoors pursuits benefited from the publicity she acquired from the media. She quickly returned to the room.
Just days in the past, on the eve of this U.S. Open, Osaka spoke of making an attempt to discover a new method to life and tennis that centered on not beating herself up when issues didn’t go completely and on celebrating small victories, even simply getting away from bed within the morning.
After Friday night time, it’s clear that these efforts stay a piece in progress, work that for the foreseeable future will happen elsewhere than the grueling, globe-trotting 11-month stress cooker that’s elite skilled tennis.
In a summer season and season of wrestle for Osaka, and after shedding within the third spherical of the U.S. Open to an unseeded teenager, it’s tough to think about what comes subsequent.
The upset, a 5-7, 7-6 (2), 6-Four victory for Fernandez, got here on the identical courtroom the place Osaka had change into a worldwide star by stunning Serena Williams to win the 2018 U.S. Open. Osaka has since gained three extra Grand Slam singles titles, together with the one at last year’s Open.
The 73rd-ranked Fernandez, a fast and dynamic left-hander, had by no means confronted Osaka, however she didn’t seem intimidated, clenching her fist after successful key factors and sometimes dictating play together with her topspin forehand.
Osaka broke Fernandez’s serve at 5-5 within the second set with a backhand winner after which served for the match. She had not confronted even a break level at that stage however was unable to shut out the victory. Fernandez went on to win the primary 5 factors of the following tiebreaker, prompting Osaka to hurl her racket to the courtroom. Fernandez then evened the match at one set apiece.
“I guess I wanted to stay on the court a little bit longer, and I wanted to put on a show for everybody here,” Fernandez mentioned in her post-match interview. “One hour was just not enough for me on court.”
Fernandez shortly took the lead within the third set by breaking Osaka’s serve once more within the opening sport, and although Osaka started to discover her vary in her personal service video games, she couldn’t remedy Fernandez’s slower left-handed serve.
Osaka didn’t disguise her frustration. After Fernandez hit a net-cord winner within the second sport of the ultimate set to go up, 40-15, Osaka took maintain of the ball and smacked it excessive into the stands, receiving a code-of-conduct warning for ball abuse.
“I’m really sorry about that,” Osaka mentioned of her conduct. “I was telling myself to be calm, but I feel like maybe there was a boiling point. Normally I feel like I like challenges. But recently I feel very anxious when things don’t go my way, and I feel like you can feel that. I’m not really sure why it happens the way it happens now.”
Osaka in contrast her perspective on Friday to that of “a little kid.” But Fernandez, six years her junior, didn’t wrestle to stay totally targeted on the match. She confronted no break factors on her serve within the ultimate set, and when it got here time to serve for probably the most vital victory of her profession, she held at love. At 30-0, she hit a terrific backhand drop-shot winner, and on Fernandez’s first match level, Osaka misjudged a forehand and hit it broad.
Arms up and smiling, Fernandez jogged ahead to the web for the handshake.
“From the very beginning, right before the match, I knew I was able to win,” she mentioned.
All three of Osaka’s defeats this summer season have come in opposition to left-handers: Marketa Vondrousova at the Olympics, Jil Teichmann in Ohio and now Fernandez.
This was the primary main upset of the U.S. Open ladies’s match, which, regardless of the depth of expertise within the ladies’s sport, had largely revered the seedings within the first two rounds. But Friday’s consequence was the most recent setback for Osaka, the most important star within the ladies’s sport after Williams. Since successful the Australian Open in February, she has performed sparingly and has not gained one other title and even reached one other semifinal.
After defeating Marie Bouzkova in straight units within the first spherical in New York, Osaka acquired a walkover within the second spherical when Olga Danilova withdrew due to sickness.
But due to her lack of current match play, the sudden break didn’t prove to be a bonus. “I think I would have preferred to play a match,” Osaka mentioned.
Fernandez, brimming with power and optimism, was in a position to capitalize.
“I wasn’t really focused on Naomi. I was only focused on myself, my game, what I needed to do,” she mentioned. “Having the crowd there supporting me and backing me up after every point, it’s amazing. It gave me the energy to keep fighting, to keep working and keep running for those balls that she hit.”
It was a memorable evening for teenagers in Arthur Ashe Stadium. In the previous match, Carlos Alcaraz, a dynamic Spanish 18-year-old, eradicated the No. three males’s seed, Stefanos Tsitsipas, in a momentum-shifting thriller that got here down to a fifth-set tiebreaker. That was the ultimate match of the day session, and when the sector had been cleared and the night-session crowd had taken their seats, Fernandez adopted Alcaraz’s lead.
Ben Rothenberg contributed reporting.