Asked to select the female player under 25 who is likely to have the best career, American tennis legend Chris Evert hesitates, hums and haws before coming up with her answer.
“I’m looking at Naomi Osaka’s name right here. I think Naomi,” she told reporters during a conference call on Thursday.
“But I don’t know.”
Just about a year ago, that choice might have been easy. Osaka’s win at the Australian Open, her second straight Grand Slam, put her atop the WTA rankings and cemented her as a star of both the present and future.
At the time, Osaka and Jelena Ostapenko — whose struggles ever since winning the 2017 French Open have her trending toward being labeled a flash in the pan — were the only Grand Slam winners under the age of 25.
But after an up-and-down 2019 and the emergence of what might be the most talented young group of players the WTA has seen since the Williams sisters, Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport in the late 90s, Osaka’s position as the top early 20-something in the game is far from secure.
The 22-year-old Japanese spent much of 2019 trying to rediscover the form that had made her No. 1, with her struggles culminating in a tearful news conference following a first-round exit at Wimbledon. A pair of tournament wins in Osaka and Beijing rounded out a season that had plenty of highs and lows, and two coaching changes.
Continuing where she left off at the end of last year, she got her 2020 campaign off on the right foot with a semifinal run in Brisbane, Australia, her only warmup tournament prior to her attempt to defend the Australian Open title.
“She’s still moving really well. That’s the one area that she’s really improved, her moving. She’s still hitting the ball well. I think she could definitely win this tournament or win any Grand Slam this year,” Evert said.
If Osaka’s struggles opened the door for other young players to make their mark, no one barged through that opening quite like Australian Ash Barty.
Barty, 23, joined Osaka in the Grand Slam winner’s circle with her triumph at the French Open and took over the No. 1 ranking a few weeks later.
“Barty of all the players, she’s surprised me the most because I always knew she had the all-court game. But I think that turning point in her career came at the French Open when she was down a set (and) 3-love against Amanda Anisimova, and she pulled it out,” Evert said, referring to Barty’s semifinal match with the young American at Roland Garros. “Mentally I think she turned the corner, and I think she believes now that she can win anything.”
The spring may have belonged to Barty, but the summer was all about Canadian teen Bianca Andreescu.
Andreescu, 19, followed up a March win at Indian Wells, where Osaka first put the tour on notice a year earlier, with a win at home at the Rogers Cup in Toronto and her first Grand Slam at the U.S. Open.
But injuries have held her back — Andreescu missed Wimbledon last year with a shoulder injury and withdrew earlier this month from the Australian Open with a knee injury — and Evert expressed concern over her ability to stay healthy.
“I think she’s such an athletic player, and she just leaves it all out there, and she just throws her whole body into every shot, and therefore I think that’s paying the price a little bit with her injuries.
“But boy, if she’s healthy, she’s really dangerous,” she said.
Even with No. 6 Andreescu’s absence, 15 players under the age of 25 — including teens Anisimova and Dayana Yastremska — will be seeded at this year’s Australian Open, up from 10 last year.
Further down the rankings at No. 67 is ultra-promising 15-year-old Coco Gauff, who is slated to face Osaka in the third round this week if both players make it that far.
“(Gauff’s) got it all, and she’s got the power and she moves so beautifully, and she’s going to cause some upsets for sure this tournament,” Evert opined.
With such an influx of new talent, the fourth-ranked Osaka may be put in the unfamiliar position of being able to tap her experience to get through the draw.
“I do feel like I’m a bit more seasoned, even though I’m still relatively young, per se,” she told a news conference Saturday. “But I think every year I get more comfortable on the tour, so hopefully that somewhat translates into my matches.”