Naomi Osaka

With Success of Naomi Osaka, Ash Barty and Coco Gauff, Comes Added Pressure

by Sharada Rajagopalan

It took Naomi Osaka a few years on the tour to build up her professional resume, with the biggest titles and rankings. The fall was much quicker – building up within months – with various reasons spouted to rationalise her sudden loss of form. No matter what was being speculated, it was not until Osaka clarified what had not been working for her that the matter became clear. Not just about her career alone but also of other fellow youngsters on the professional tennis tour.

“The last few months for me have been really rough tennis wise… I can honestly reflect and say I probably haven’t had fun playing tennis since Australia and I’m finally coming to terms with that while relearning that fun feeling…” Osaka shared in a Twitter post. Though the entirety of the 21-year-old’s post stood out, the portion in which she spoke about “not having fun” stood out sharply than the rest.

Going back to her matches after the Australian Open, it became obvious to what she was referring. After the US Open, making her way into the new season as the most in-form player, alongside her results, expectations boomed. And, direct proportional to these expectations, pressure also rose on her to justify these – as though, these were of her making.

When Osaka won the Australian Open, she seemed to have found a way to negate both while fulfilling her potential. The way things have turned out, it now feels as though Osaka only – albeit successfully – masked the circumstantial despondency. Articulating the same now, is her attempt of coping with it while subtly putting out an advisory that she needs her space to re-find herself.

Borrowing from what Osaka wrote, a case for leaving a player alone can be made for other such players who are considered as the successors on the professional tour. Among the men, the scenario has been pushed to its zenith with touting such as “NextGen” forcibly nudging the idea that the present is all about the future. As youngster after youngster stumbles along the road, the idea of present – older players – being dominant versus a future that has letdown the sport in its uncertainty is also being polished in its reiteration.

In contrast, the WTA lot, especially the youngsters evade such deeply-poring intensity until obliviousness is not an option. That is, while talent abounds among the juniors, somehow or the other, the men’s action takes more precedence shoving the women into the shadows. That, however, is a debate of men’s tour vis-à-vis the women’s remains a topic to be discussed at some later, finite point. Yet, this existing chasm between the reception of the men’s and women’s game helps the younger WTA players focus on developing their game and make their way upwards, literally, through the ranks.

Once they step into the tour events and the world at large cottons on to their aptitude, and paean-like articles are sung about them being the proverbial future that is when reality enters the fray, disrupting years’ worth of carefully-nurtured concentration. Be it Osaka, or be it Jelena Ostapenko, or even Ashleigh Barty to name a few.
In case of the Australian, praises about her finding her place among the major champions do make it a point to include how she took a sabbatical from tennis to play cricket. Barty, too, has credited how cricket helped center her. The 23-year-old’s confessions aside, these narratives do not talk about how Barty moved on to play a team sport that does not receive much attention (if any, at all) from non-Commonwealth countries. If she needed to regroup, the 11-player game gave her as much of an opportunity to be connected with the sports’ world as much as there was a gulf separating her from expectations.

More than her win on a surface that was always thought to be non-conducive to her playing style, Barty’s winning a singles major at the French Open when everyone’s usual picks fell off the draw sheet was the bigger surprise. As if it were a given offshoot, it was also not surprising that Barty’s Roland Garros title led to chants of her winning Wimbledon.

This externally-driven pipe dream may have been extinguished for Barty. But onlookers latched on to another player to fuel their aspirations – in 16-year-old Coco Gauff. It also became convenient to do so since she defeated 38-year-old Venus Williams, one of her idols, in the opening round thereby earning the moniker of being someone-like the Williamses in the years to come.

However, the irony is that Venus and Serena Williams did not become who they are now while starting off as teenage prodigies. It has taken the Williams sisters over two decades on the tour to get to where they are now. In a way, they are outliers to the usual plotlines spun around tennis because they have not only shunned expectations – while battling against odds – but also used them as expedient benchmarks to be surpassed.

If they are to be used as examples, more than their achievements, it is this quality of theirs that the likes of Gauff and Osaka need to be expected to emulate – in their wins as in their losses.

The Latest On Naomi Osaka, Japan’s New Tennis Titan

Naomi Osaka is taking the tennis world by storm. Last year at this time, Japan’s newest tennis super star was ranked No. 72 and now she is on the cusp of becoming No. 1. Here are some info in advance of her Australian Open final.

She is making fourth main draw appearance at Australian Open, where she has advanced to first Australian final and second Grand Slam final.

Her previous best result here was a round of 16 showing in 2018 where she defeated two Top 20 players (No.19 Vesnina and No.17 Barty) before falling to World No.1 and eventual runner-up Simona Halep. Osaka’s 2018 run saw her become the youngest Japanese to reach the round 16 at a Slam since Ai Sugiyama at 1995 Roland Garros (19 yrs, 342 days) and she was the youngest player from Japan to reach this stage at Australian Open since Kimiko Date in 1990 (19 yrs, 122 days).

In other outings at the Australian Open, she made the third round in 2016 (as qualifier, lost to Vika Azarenka) – which marked Grand Slam main draw debut – and a second round in 2017 (losing to Jo Konta).

Having won the US Open in 2018, Osaka is bidding to be the 10th woman to win US Open and Australian Open back-to-back (most recently accomplished by Serena Williams in 2015). She is seeded at No. 4 this fortnight, which is her highest seeding at a Slam, up from No. 18 at 2018 Wimbledon. The No.4 seed has won title in Australia on three occasions in the Open Era: Mary Pierce (1995), Martina Hingis (1997) and Li Na (2014) Osaka is contesting 2019 Australian Open at a career-high of No.4, which was first achieved October 8, 2018.

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Wide Open Field For WTA Finals In Singapore But Who Is The Favorite?

Karolina Pliskova and Elina Svitolina are the last two player to qualify for the eight-player year-end 2018 BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global that will take place from October 21-28, 2018.

Pliskova and Svitolina round out the singles field, joining Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber, US Open champion Naomi Osaka, two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, Dutch star Kiki Bertens, Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki and 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens in Singapore. The eight players will compete for $7 million in prize money and bragging rights as to who can lay claim to be the “best of the year” for the 2018 season.

Women’s tennis has been as unpredictably exciting the last few years, illustrated by the fact that over the last eight major championships, eight different champions have been crowned.

Pliskova has earned her WTA Finals spot with two wins this season – in Stuttgart and at the Toray Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo. Said Pliskova, “I can’t wait to close out the year competing against the other elite players of 2018.”

Svitolina won three titles in three final-round appearances in 2018, lifting trophies in Brisbane, Dubai and Rome. The Ukrainian reached the quarterfinal stage at the Australian Open and made the round of 16 at the US Open, maintaining her Top 10 ranking all season long.

While many pointed to world No. 1 Simona Halep, the world No. 1, as the favorite, her health has been a major concern, causing her to pull out of the event in Moscow this week as well as Singapore and will not play again until 2019.

Wozniacki, the world No. 2, has shown a return-to-form with her recent victory in Beijing and could be the WTA betting favorite in Singapore because of this, Halep’s injury, and the fact that she is the defending champion, having beaten Venus Williams in Singapore last year. Following her break-through win at the Australian Open, her first major singles title, Wozniacki returned to the No. 1 ranking but struggled to maintain that form for most of the rest of the year, only winning in Eastbourne in June on grass.

Osaka turned the tennis world on its head with her shocking final-round win over Serena Williams at the U.S. Open and has handled the spotlight well since her maiden major victory in New York. She reached the final in Tokyo in her first event after her U.S. Open win, not an easy task, especially under the immense media scrutiny in her home nation. She also reached the semifinals of Beijing. She is trending upwards and could also cap her most impressive year with a title in Singapore.

Said WTA CEO & Chairman Steve Simon of the event, “Singapore will be an exciting week for women’s tennis, as the Top 8 singles players…are ready to compete for this prestigious title while celebrating an amazing five-year legacy in this wonderful city.”

Staged at the Singapore Sports Hub from October 21-28, the 2018 BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global is a 10-day tennis festival featuring the world’s best players vying for a US$7 million in prize money and two of the most prestigious titles in women’s tennis. The Top 8 singles players will compete in a round-robin format with the winner taking home the Billie Jean King Trophy. For more information, go to www.WTAFinals.com

Photo Essay: Journey to the Title

As for all Grand Slam champions, the road to the trophy is long, and begins at a time that seems forever before the final match. In the first days of the tournament, titles are but dreams — dreams that slowly come closer to reality as each match is won. In this photo essay, tennis writer and photographer Chris Nicholson illustrates parts of the journey of two women chasing history: Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams.

Photos by Chris Nicholson, author of Photographing Tennis. Follow Chris’ US Open photos on Instagram (@ShootingTennis).

Madison Keys Stages Extraordinary Comeback Win To Beat Naomi Osaka

by Kevin Craig

@KCraig_Tennis

 

Madison Keys completed an extraordinary comeback on Arthur Ashe Stadium on Friday at the US Open, coming back from 1-5 down in the third set to beat Naomi Osaka of Japan, 7-5, 4-6, 7-6(3).

“For sure. Hands down,” said Keys when asked if this was the best comeback of her career. “The crowd today was amazing, and getting to play at your home slam on Ashe is a feeling like you can’t even describe.”

Keys, the No. 8 seat in this year’s US Open, has been in terrific form this summer, holding a 19-4 record since the French Open. The impressive run she has been on saw her sitting at a career high ranking of No. 9 coming into the event, and with her results in New York, will see her propel to an even higher career high ranking when the new rankings come out.

With a title in Birmingham, a finalist appearance in Montreal, and reaching the medal rounds at the Olympics in Rio, Keys, at 21-years old, was touted as one of the outside favorites at the final major of the year, but received a massive scare from her 18-year old opponent.

Osaka, who has been highly regarded as one of the best prospects on the women’s side of the game in recent times, had an impressive result early in the year as she qualified to get into the Australian Open before reaching the third round. Her ranking as hovered in the 80-120 range in 2016, though, as she has not been able to win more than two matches in a row since her run in Melbourne.

The Japanese looked to make it three wins in a row on Friday as she broke Keys in the opening game of the match and got off to the exact start she needed. Keys, however, was up to the task and broke back just three games later to get back on serve. From the 2-2 game onward, the rest of the first set was very straight forward as neither player had a look at any break points and none of the games went to deuce until the final game of the set.

In the 12th game, Osaka gave Keys, who hit 37 winners in the match, just the smallest window of opportunity at 30-40, and the American took advantage as she broke to close out the first set, 7-5.

The second set was much different as four of the 10 games went to deuce, yet only one break point was converted. That break went to Osaka in the ninth game as she was able to fight off two break points in the early stages before taking the lead late. After converting her first break point of the set for a 5-4 lead, Osaka went on to hold comfortably at 15 to force a decider.

All the momentum looked to be on the side of the 18-year old as she would get within one game of reaching her first fourth round at a major, holding a 5-1 lead. Keys, though, knew how big of an opportunity this was for her and she didn’t let it slip, breaking Osaka as she served for the match, not even allowing the Japanese to have a look at a match point.

“I just knew that if I stayed in the match that I could maybe have a chance to come back and get back in it,” said Keys, and that was exactly the case as she fought herself all the way back to a final set tiebreak.

The unreal comeback from Keys, who won 80 percent of her first serve points in the match, was concluded as all the momentum was on her side at this point. The American was able to jump out to a 5-2 lead in the tiebreak, and there was no looking back from that point as she would close out the match three points later and place herself in the fourth round of the US Open for the second year in a row.

“I think the biggest thing is just…I’m never giving up and I’m fighting to the very end. That’s something to pat myself on the back for. But also definitely going to sit down later and work on some things for the next round because I don’t want to be two points from losing again,” said Keys.

This match-up between Keys and Osaka is surely one that will be seen many times again in the future, and possibly even in the later rounds of major tournaments. For now, though, Keys will focus on her fourth round match with former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki that will take place on Sunday.

The American has bowed out in the fourth round of the first three majors of the year, but will hope to go at least one better here in New York, and possibly match her career best result at a major; reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open in 2015.