Onlookers who wrote Naomi Osaka off in the early stages of the deciding set of her fourth-round encounter with Aryna Sabalenka can probably be given a pass.
Judging by her body language, the 20-year-old may have been close to throwing in the towel herself.
Down a break and having lost seven of the previous 10 games, Osaka had the look of a frustrated, exasperated player that wasn’t quite ready to make a significant splash at a Grand Slam. It would have been hard to predict that half an hour later she would not only emerge as a victor, but as a player that now appears poised to take a leap forward in her young career.
Oddly enough, it may have been frustration that spurred her on.
During the changeover at 1-2, Osaka buried her head in a towel, seemingly ready to vanish from Louis Armstrong Stadium and the U.S. Open. Asked after the match what was going through her mind, a tearful Osaka said: “I would never have forgiven myself if I lost that match. . . . I thought I would even break a leg if needed so I could get to every ball.”
It was with that negative persona that she returned to the court from the changeover, desperate to turn the tide of a match that looked to be hers after a breezy 31-minute first set that saw her break Sabalenka twice.
But perhaps negativity, toxic in some players but a source of motivation for others, is something that Osaka can use to her advantage when backed into a corner. Serena Williams, Osaka’s childhood idol, has been known to mope around the court when she’s unhappy with her game. Andy Murray tends to bark at his player’s box, himself and anyone else within earshot. The optimistic, Rafael Nadal-type attitude toward the game isn’t for everyone.
Whatever it was that helped Osaka out of her funk, she’ll want to keep that rejuvenated feeling in her memory bank for the next time she finds herself in a difficult spot, perhaps deeper in this very tournament.
She was in top form in putting the finishing touches on the biggest win she’s ever had at a Grand Slam. Sabalenka, herself an up-and-coming next-generation star on the WTA Tour, looked overmatched by Osaka’s powerful forehand and did her best to pepper her backhand.
It didn’t matter.
Under pressure during rallies and on the scoreboard, the Belarussian made a whopping 17 unforced errors in the final frame and faced eight break points, with two of them going Osaka’s way.
Sabalenka put just 59 percent of her first serves in play and double-faulted eight times, six of them in the deciding set, underscoring the pressure Osaka’s booming ground strokes put on her throughout.
It was fitting that the match ended on another Sabalenka double, the pressure of having to save a fourth match point apparently getting to her. Osaka was somewhat muted in her celebration out of respect for her opponent’s error, but broke into tears almost immediately after shaking hands.
Unseeded Lesia Tsurenko, the World No. 36, awaits in the quarterfinals and Osaka will be a slight favorite to make her first semifinal appearance at a major.
Gaining experience by the rally and after battling through a nervy stretch in the fourth round, Osaka has shown she is developing the resilience needed to win on the sport’s biggest stages. One thing’s for sure, anyone who thought she was down and out Monday won’t be so quick to dismiss her next time.