Naomi Osaka made her Centre Court debut in July at Wimbledon and looked every bit the part of a player who wasn’t ready for prime time.
“I wasn’t nervous. I just think I was very overwhelmed,” Osaka told reporters following her straight-sets defeat to Angelique Kerber in a match that lasted just 63 minutes.
Less than four months later, there’s little doubt that Osaka has evolved from a raw but exciting up-and-comer to an elite force on the tour, having won the U.S. Open over legend Serena Williams, cruised to the Toray Pan Pacific final in Tokyo, and secured a spot alongside the game’s best at the WTA Finals.
That her week in Singapore ended without a win, and a retirement in her final match, shouldn’t diminish what the 21-year-old accomplished in 2018 in rising to world No. 5 from No. 68 at the end of last year.
But through her remarkable run there are signs that Osaka still has some work to do to become a consistent force at Grand Slams and reach her full potential.
“Consistent” is the operative word and is something that was, injury in the later stages of the week aside, absent from her game in Singapore.
After her opening three-set loss to Sloane Stephens, Osaka acknowledged it was the biggest factor in the outcome of the match.
“I made more unforced errors in the third set and I don’t think you can do that against her so I think that’s what made the difference,” she told reporters.
She made 50 unforced errors two nights later against Kerber, another player you can’t do that against, while putting just 50 percent of her first serves in play. Those numbers might have got her past a middle-of-the-pack player but it was never going to be good enough against one of the game’s best.
Moving away from match-to-match consistency and examining her season on a whole uncovers a similar trend.
A spectacular run to the title in Indian Wells and a solid showing in Beijing aside, Osaka failed to escape the second round in any of her other appearances at Premier 5 or Premier Mandatory events, the circuit’s biggest tournaments outside of the slams and the WTA Finals. And, following wins over Pliskova and No. 1 Simona Halep in Indian Wells, Osaka’s only victory over a top-10 player came against No. 10 Julia Gorges, now down to No. 14, in Beijing. Granted, Williams’ ranking doesn’t reflect her actual prowess and Osaka got the better of her twice, but it’s fair to say that Osaka has yet to prove she can regularly beat what’s proven to be a deep field of women at the top of the sport.
Osaka has also shown that she has a tendency to get down on herself when things aren’t going her way. During the WTA Finals she was often caught chatting to herself in derision and on more than one occasion she showed her frustration by tossing her racket.
“I am a little bit apologetic for doing the stuff that I did,” she said after the match with Stephens. “I think I learned from today so I hope I don’t do that as much next match but if I do, sorry.”
It was more of the same against Kerber. At one point she memorably let her racket fall to the ground and pointed at it with two outstretched arms in puzzled exasperation, like a dog owner discovering that their puppy had scratched up the carpet again.
Those kinds of on-court demonstrations can be healthy and even therapeutic to a point, but they can also drag down a player’s confidence — as it appeared to do for Osaka last week — and give a mental edge to the opposition.
Still, there’s little doubt that Osaka’s mental game is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was when she began her 2018 campaign.
Speaking prior to the WTA Finals, Osaka’s coach Sascha Bajin noted that the biggest improvement in the star’s game has come between the ears.
“I think she’s a little bit more outgoing. She opened up a little bit more. She’s not so caved in anymore,” the tournament’s official website quoted him as saying.
His comments jibed with what Osaka herself told the website following the tournament.
“I feel like I’m more — I wouldn’t say ‘confident’ — but I’m more I have inner peace, like zen. I don’t really want to use words I don’t know. But like I can go inside myself and be peaceful,” she said.
No longer overwhelmed but still with room to grow, Osaka will need to sharpen her focus and find a more consistent level — and recover physically and mentally from the grind of a grueling year — over the course of tennis’ cruelly short offseason.
If she can manage that she’ll be a good bet to build on her breakout 2018 and add more Grand Slam titles to her fledgling collection.