It’s been 10 months since a woman other than Naomi Osaka hoisted a Grand Slam singles trophy, but if the star is to make it three majors in a row she’s going to have to do something she hasn’t done at any level as a professional: succeed on clay.
Over the past year, Osaka has won her first two Grand Slam titles, added a host of new sponsors, changed coaches and vaulted to world No. 1, but through that transformation an inability to achieve anything more than modest results away from hard courts has remained a constant.
This year injuries have played a significant, even primary role in her lack of success away from her preferred surface. She has competed in three tournaments in the lengthy lead-up to the French Open, making it into the quarterfinals in Madrid and Rome and the semifinals in Stuttgart, Germany. On two occasions she withdrew citing injury, first with an abdominal issue in Stuttgart and then with a hand injury in Rome.
Those respectable showings might not seem like much to get excited about for the world’s top-ranked player, but the results are a positive sign when taking her past efforts on clay into account.
From 2016 to 2018 Osaka managed to win just 15 matches on the dirt, five each year, for a middling 53.5 percent win rate. Compare that to a 65 percent rate on hard courts over that span and a clearer picture of her struggles begins to form.
So what’s at the heart of her woes on the dirt?
First and foremost, faster courts are undoubtedly better suited to Osaka’s aggressive brand of tennis. The high, slow bounce on the clay tends to reward those who like to put a lot of topspin on the ball and defend, as opposed to flat hitters who prefer to attack. Slower courts naturally lead to longer rallies and fewer aces, both detrimental for a player of Osaka’s makeup.
But more than that, like most players who grow up playing in North America — as Osaka did after her family left Japan when she was a toddler — a lack of familiarity with clay courts has held her back. From footwork to point construction, it’s a whole different game on clay and it can take players who develop their games on hard courts — as is the case for most Americans — a while to adapt.
Serena Williams counts just three French Open trophies among her 23 Grand Slam singles titles and it took her until 2013, 14 years after her first major win, to nab her second. Her sister Venus, a seven-time Grand Slam champion in her own right, has never won in Paris. Fellow American greats Pete Sampras, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors tried and failed to win Roland Garros throughout their careers, with only McEnroe making it to a final.
Still, Osaka says she is slowly coming around to clay, a sentiment backed up by her improved 2019 results on the surface.
“I think one of the biggest things is, instead of complaining about it, I’m trying to figure out how to adapt to it. This is an inevitable part of the season . . . I can’t just skip this entire swing,” she told a news conference in Rome on May 16, following her third-round victory. “I also feel like I want to be a player that’s great on all surfaces. I think one of the biggest steps is starting to do well on clay and learning how to adapt.”
Osaka enters the French Open as a second-tier favorite, well behind defending champion Simona Halep and recent winners Kiki Bertens (Madrid) and Karolina Pliskova (Rome).
Her No. 1 ranking is also under threat as it has been for much of the spring — Bertens, Pliskova, Angelique Kerber and Petra Kvitova could all leave Paris as the world’s top player. But Osaka can go a long way toward ensuring she stays on top with a deep run at Roland Garros. Having lost in the third round a year ago, she has few points to defend and a strong showing could separate herself from the pack heading into the grass court season.
But to do that, she’ll have to find a level of consistency on clay that has eluded her throughout her young career.