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Osaka must improve mental focus to become elite player

by Joel Tansey

Staff Writer

With 2018 wins over Grand Slam champions Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova as well as reigning world No. 1 Simona Halep, Naomi Osaka has proven that she, too, has the potential to win a major — or perhaps several.

And the game’s upper echelon could be just around the corner for the 20-year-old.

Or it could be years away.

Or perhaps it’ll never come to be.

Such is the nature of tennis, where the physical tools — and Osaka has them in spades — are just a fraction of what’s needed to reach the pinnacle of the sport.

Last week in Montreal, Osaka looked the part of a player who’s barely past her teens.

Her inconsistent shot-making and the shortfalls in her mental game were on full display during her first-round match at the Rogers Cup with veteran Carla Suarez Navarro, particularly in a first-set tiebreaker that was littered with unforced errors and was ultimately gifted to her Spanish opponent.

Down 2-1, and having already committed two ugly mistakes in the first three points of the breaker, Osaka dumped a forehand into the net after a brief three-shot rally. Her annoyance led her to fake a toss of her racket after the point.

She couldn’t contain her frustration much longer.

On the next point it was the backhand’s turn to fail her, and this time she decided her Yonex deserved to bear the brunt of her anger, throwing it to the court.

An error from Suarez Navarro on the next point meant the Spaniard had a 4-2 advantage at the changeover.

The next three points for Osaka continued her troubling trend: backhand error into the net, backhand error long, complete mishit on a running forehand. On separate occasions Osaka smirked and shook her head in disbelief, looked to the sky, and slumped her shoulders and stared at her feet. She didn’t have the look of a player that was going to mount a comeback.

Suarez Navarro took the second set 6-2 to move on.

Evidently, Osaka’s mental game is still a work in progress.

And a player’s mental makeup is paramount because no other sport leaves its competitors feeling so isolated, so alone.

Baseball is obvious: Teammates and coaches are there to pick up a player’s spirits after an ugly error or costly strikeout. Other team sports are much the same.

Cyclists ride as part of a team and have support groups driving alongside them. Golfers have caddies. Skiers and figure skaters can chat with coaches immediately before and after their 2-minute runs or 4-minute routines.

But with the exception of once-a-set timeouts during changeovers at non-majors, the WTA bans on-court coaching. The ATP disallows it completely.

Encouragement from coaches and family sitting in the stands can provide a boost, but players can, and have been, punished if it extends much beyond a “Come on!” or a “Keep it up!”

If a player finds themselves spraying the ball left and right, battling a case of the serving “yips,” or simply being dominated by an opponent, it’s up to them to find a solution if they want to get back in the match.

For the most part, they are alone for hours on end.

Osaka appeared to be in a bad frame of mind on the court in Montreal last week and it snuffed out any hope she had of beating an opponent that was always going to make her work for it.

Still, there’s no denying Osaka’s raw, physical talent, which is why it’ll be the game between the ears that decides whether she’ll become a Grand Slam champion or the next “what could have been.”