Tennis

Expectations make it tough on former No. 1 Naomi Osaka

by Joel Tansey

Staff Writer

Facing break point at 2-2 in the second set, Naomi Osaka fired a flat, roughly 180 kph serve to Yulia Putintseva’s backhand, seemingly handcuffing her tricky Kazakh opponent.

Putintseva made an almost apologetic stab at the return that floated over the net and was called out. On another day, perhaps that would have been a mere close call on Osaka’s road toward the second round, a nervous moment that would soon be forgotten.

But little has gone according to plan for the world No. 2 of late.

Instead, Putintseva raised a finger to signal that she would challenge the call, folded her hands and looked skyward in prayer as Osaka waited and watched a courtside video screen. The Hawk-Eye review system showed it was in by mere millimeters.

Now it was Osaka’s turn to look to the heavens.

Fifteen minutes later she was out of the tournament.

While that unlucky point at a crucial moment might stand out as the death knell for Osaka’s short-lived prospects at Wimbledon, it would be a spectacular oversimplification to say that it was what caused her downfall.

For that, Osaka and her team can look in any number of directions.

On the court, her 38 unforced errors, including a devastating 27 from the backhand side, underline a disturbing trend that saw her commit 73 unforced errors combined in her two previous losses, one of which came against Putintseva at a Wimbledon warmup event. That’s coming from a player who, over five sets, made just 48 errors combined in the pressure cooker of the U.S. Open and Australian Open finals.

Both of those tournaments are played on hard courts, where Osaka is clearly at her best — the low, unpredictable bounce on the grass gave her fits on Monday — and her unfamiliarity with the surface was particularly evident when Putintseva played low, skidding slices to her backhand.

But it’s factors beyond groundstrokes and serves that are likely to receive most of the attention as observers dissect what’s gone wrong for the 21-year-old over the past five months.

In her brief postmatch news conference, reporters quizzed her on a range of possible factors for her recent struggles, from her shocking split with coach Sascha Bajin after the Australian Open to her relative youth, to her apparent difficulty in adjusting to worldwide fame.

She flatly denied the first two items had any bearing on her performance and didn’t answer the third. Instead, she asked if she could leave because she was “about to cry.” Then she left.

Following the loss, commentator and tennis legend John McEnroe reiterated comments that he made last week, saying on the BBC that the move away from Bajin “doesn’t make any sense to me,” according to the South China Morning Post.

“She’s clearly really struggling,” opined the Telegraph’s Charlie Eccleshare on The Tennis Podcast. “I think (the coaching change) has probably taken a bigger toll than we can know.

“All the emotional distress that would have been involved in that . . . (came) at a time where she really needed that stability” because of her sudden rise to fame, he said.

Osaka herself has said that she’s had a tough time adjusting to the new set of expectations that come with being a two-time major champion and — up until last week — world No. 1.

“Mentally (being No. 1) 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,” she told reporters on Saturday.

If there’s reason for optimism for the rest of her 2019, it’s that most of her struggles have come on clay and grass, rather than hard courts, where she has been far more successful throughout her young career.

With the schedule shifting to the hard courts of North America starting later this month, Osaka will have plenty of opportunities to regain her confidence and work her way back into form ahead of the U.S. Open. If she can’t, she’ll have many more difficult questions to answer.