It’s often said that getting to the upper echelon of tennis is the easy part.
But staying there? That’s another story.
Following her semifinal loss last week in Brisbane, Naomi Osaka spoke candidly about the added pressure she feels now that she’s one of the sport’s top stars.
“Before I would just be nervous to be there in a way and now I feel nervous because I think I should win, like I’m the higher-ranked player and I feel like people expect me to win so that’s like an added amount of nerves,” she remarked at the post-match press conference. “But . . . I feel like I’m getting used to it.”
Since her U.S. Open win Osaka has, for the most part, handled the added pressure well, which bodes well as she gets set to play in a major for the first time as a Grand Slam champion. Her injury-marred WTA Finals appearance aside, the world No. 4 had strong showings in Tokyo and Beijing to further her rise up the tour rankings.
But the Australian Open promises to present a brand new challenge.
Having picked up legions of supporters in Japan and abroad since September, Osaka won’t be able to shy away from the spotlight of either the media or fans. From her first match to her last, the 21-year-old can expect to play in front of large, often boisterous Aussie crowds on the tournament’s biggest show courts. Her practice sessions, that perhaps used to draw a modest number of onlookers, are likely to become events in themselves as fans look to catch a glimpse of one of the newest faces of tennis. For a player that appears camera shy and, at times, even downright awkward in front of the media, the added attention will take some getting used to.
Others before her have been crushed under the pressure.
Jelena Ostapenko was where Osaka is now not too long ago following her 2017 French Open triumph at age 20. She’s now ranked No. 22, down from a high of No. 5, and has lost in the first three rounds in four of the six majors since her win at Roland Garros.
On the men’s tour, Novak Djokovic won his first major at age 20 at the 2008 Australian Open and proceeded to go on a three-year Grand Slam drought.
Even Serena Williams went two calendar years without a Grand Slam after her 1999 U.S. Open victory.
More experienced first-time Grand Slam champions have also struggled.
Angelique Kerber, who has since rebounded, won her first two Grand Slam titles in 2016 at 28 and reached world No. 1 later that year before slumping all the way to No. 21 by the end of 2017.
If she can settle her nerves, Osaka will be a good bet to make the latter stages of the Australian Open.
In 2018, Osaka’s 283 aces were good enough to place her fifth on the tour, while her 76 percent win rate in her service games ranked fourth among players with at least 20 matches played. A dominant serve promises to lead to success on the hard courts at Melbourne Park, which observers say have been playing faster in recent years.
Her consistency in rallies, lacking at times since her U.S. Open win, will remain a key. Like a lot of big hitters, Osaka has a tendency to go through dips in form during a match, leading to errors and causing her to get down on herself.
With regards to her on-court attitude, she admitted to sulking at times during her loss in Brisbane, something she says she is trying to get away from.
“I was sulking a little bit. There are moments where I tried not to do that but then the ball wouldn’t go in and I’d go back to being childish and stuff,” she said. “I feel like last year I did a lot of that and I’m trying to change it more.”
Beyond Osaka, the myriad favorites for the Australian Open title range from the 37-year-old Williams, vying for that elusive 24th Grand Slam title to tie her with Margaret Court for first all time, to upstart 20-year-old Aryna Sabalenka, the only player to seriously test Osaka in New York. Further muddying the waters, No. 1 Simona Halep has barely played since the summer and is fresh off a second-round loss to Australian Ashleigh Barty, another rising star and potential dark horse, while defending champion Caroline Wozniacki struggled for much of the latter half of 2018 outside of her title in Beijing. Throw in the inconsistent Sloane Stephens and Petra Kvitova and the always dangerous Kerber and Karolina Pliskova, and picking a winner becomes as scientific as a game of roulette.
Osaka has risen to the sport’s elite, but will she be able to cement that status in 2019? Emerging from a crowded field and securing a second consecutive Grand Slam title would go a long way toward removing any doubt.