Tennis

Naomi Osaka returns to hunter role at Wimbledon

by Joel Tansey

Staff Writer

A shocking coaching change, off-court distractions, the pressure of added expectations as world No. 1: There’s no one-size-fits-all explanation for Naomi Osaka’s struggles since winning the Australian Open.

All three were among the reasons American tennis legends and commentators Chris Evert and John McEnroe cited last week in a conference call with reporters in the lead-up to Wimbledon, which starts Monday.

Osaka has gone 13-6 since winning her second consecutive slam and her surprise announcement shortly afterward that she had split with coach Sascha Bajin. She’s yet to play in a tournament final since, only making it as far as the semifinals once in eight tries. After multiple close calls, she finally lost her No. 1 ranking to Ash Barty last week.

Evert, who spent 260 weeks at No. 1 during her illustrious career, noted the difference between being part of the chasing group of players and being on top.

“Everybody’s gunning for her. She’s got a target on her back,” she said.

“You put more pressure on yourself. People expect more. You want more,” said McEnroe, who spent 170 weeks at No. 1. “But, like (Evert) said, people are gunning for you.”

“That’s something I learned when I took the ranking from (Bjorn) Borg. I didn’t realize there was such a great difference in the way that people look at you and the way you were viewed and what you had to deal with. That’s something that can be overwhelming.”

Evert, an 18-time grand slam champion, recalled her mentality when she was ranked first. She said she would raise her level of alertness during those periods, fully aware that her opponents would have an added bit of motivation to beat her and secure what would likely be the biggest wins of their careers.

“Instead of being nervous about it, I thought to myself that they might be a little intimidated,” she said. ” ‘I’m No. 1. I deserve it. I have the best record. I’m playing well and maybe they’re going to be the ones that are going to be intimidated,’ ” she said of her mentality.

“I think it’s how you approach being No. 1 and I think different players approach it differently.”

Osaka, for her part, admitted that the pressure of wearing the Women’s Tennis Association crown was far greater than she expected.

“Mentally it was way more stress and pressure than I could have imagined and I don’t think there was anything that could have prepared me for that. Especially since I’m kind of an overthinker,” she said Saturday in her pre-Wimbledon news conference.

Up until the U.S. Open, Evert noted, Osaka could just focus on playing tennis with few off-court distractions. But all that’s changed since she rose to fame, inked deals with a host of new sponsors and became a global superstar.

“She just has to be careful to balance that the right way. I’m not saying that she hasn’t, but just be aware that that could also affect the focus on every single match and every single point.”

McEnroe, a seven-time grand slam champion, pointed to the curious timing of Osaka’s split with Bajin, who guided her to the top from No. 68 at the end of 2017, as a factor.

“There’s this added scrutiny that I’m assuming she wouldn’t have wanted. Because it did seem rather weird that she won two (majors) in a row and then she gets rid of her coach,” he said.

“Athletes are usually pretty superstitious. Normally you would wait until something not so good happens.”

“I think he was great for her,” Evert said of Baijin. “And he taught her a lot of lessons that he learned from working with Serena (Williams).”

“He saw all of the ways that (Williams) became a champion and I think that he parlayed that into the way that he coached Naomi,” she said.

Osaka’s struggles may have come to a head in Birmingham, England, during a grass court tune-up event. After her loss to Yulia Putintseva in a 68-minute match, where according to tennisabstract.com she made 39 unforced errors against just 21 winners, a disheartened Osaka declined to face reporters.

“I felt really bad about it after but at the moment I was like ‘I don’t even think I can articulate sentences well enough to do the press conference,’ ” she said, adding that at first she couldn’t even discuss the match with her new coach Jermaine Jenkins or the rest of the team. “That loss, it was so shocking that it was actually kind of good for me.”

There could be reason for Osaka to feel optimistic heading into Wimbledon. Unshackled from the weight of the No. 1 ranking — “I don’t have to think about defending the ranking or anything,” she noted — she’ll return to the role of the hunter, rather than the hunted. That alone could make a big difference mentally.

And grass, while an unfamiliar surface for her, should be well-tailored to her aggressive, hard-hitting game — once she gets the hang of it.

“For me it’s been kind of tough especially because it’s way more unpredictable than clay. But I feel it should be good for me because it’s very reliant on the first serves and being the first person to be aggressive,” she said Saturday.

“Every day I learn something while I play here.”

But the learning curve may need to be a steep one.

Putintseva will be her first round opponent and will surely be looking for a repeat of the 6-2, 6-3, drubbing she put on Osaka just a week and a half ago.

If she gets through that match and a few more, she may just find herself back in the top spot and wearing that coveted, albeit cumbersome, crown.