In months and years gone by, a third-round grand-slam loss to an unheralded opponent might have given Naomi Osaka cause for heavy rumination. She may have agonised over every headline and carried every morsel of feedback into her next game.
After falling on Friday to the unseeded American Amanda Anisimova, she will still uninstall Instagram and Twitter from her phone and “probably won’t redownload it for a couple of weeks”. But something has also fundamentally changed for Osaka in the time since she withdrew from last year’s French Open to prioritise her mental health, opted out of Wimbledon and then endured several months more of indecision around her career.
For all the contention around her dislike of press conferences, the Japanese four-time major champion sat in one for 15 minutes and spoke expansively and philosophically about the Australian Open title defence which had just ended and her new approach to such challenges.
“I fought for every point, I can’t be sad about that,” Osaka said after the 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5) defeat. “You know, like, I’m not God, I can’t win every match. So I just have to take that into account and know that it would be nice to win the tournament, but that’s really special, and I can’t think of myself to try to win the grand slam at the start of the year every time.
“I feel like I grew a lot in this match. The last match that I played in New York I think I had a completely different attitude.” That was at the US Open, where a third-round loss to the Canadian teenager Leylah Fernandez left Osaka in tears and announcing she would take a break from tennis.
“I would definitely say I’m proud of myself for this [change], though to me it didn’t feel like a short amount of time – it felt like ages ago,” Osaka said. “I think this for me is the biggest step, even though I lost. I think I was really focused throughout the entire match, and I didn’t have a dip. So that’s really good. Hopefully as the season continues, I’ll be able to keep this up and get even better at it.”
Osaka, 24, was already happy to be back in 2022, and there was a sense the year’s first grand slam – on the hard courts she so relishes – might have become the world No 14’s proverbial springboard back into the top-five tier she is more used to inhabiting. These days, though, she is “not quite worried about my ranking”, saying meditation and keeping a journal has helped her keep her goals more manageable.
They will not include facing Ash Barty in the fourth round on Sunday, a potential meeting so anticipated the tournament scheduled the two women’s singles favourites to play Friday’s third-round matches at the same time on different courts.
The tension was compelling, but where Barty was well in control of her 6-2, 6-3 defeat of Camila Giorgi, the Italian No 30 seed, on Rod Laver Arena, Osaka ceded the second set at Margaret Court Arena and was made to muster all her mettle in the third. In the end, she dumped two match points into the net and bowed out in a first-to-10-points deciding tie-break, joining the small pile of women’s seeds already on the cutting-room floor this tournament.
Her competition was fierce – Anisimova was the player who had just dismantled the Olympic champion, Belinda Bencic. The 20-year-old’s greatest strength was a precise wide serve that opened up the court and her opponent with devastating impact. She converted match point with her 11th ace and twice held to love in the final set.
In all, Osaka broke her just the once, in the first game. It was a deceptive opening indeed, because the next break after that did not arrive until the second set and was inflicted by the unexpected party. Once Anisimova had accomplished that 3-1 lead, via an exquisitely disguised backhand drop shot, the upset was brewing.
“I thought definitely in the rallies she was dictating a bit more, which was a new feeling for me,” Osaka said. “Granted, I’ve never played her before, so I didn’t know the pace of her ball, but it was definitely a bit jarring to be on my back foot in most of the rallies.”
The longer the contest wore on, the braver Anisimova became and the more Osaka faltered. First serves became a problem, second serves were returned with interest and she worked overtime just to hold her ground against an onslaught of winners that by the end totalled 46 to her 21. Once she had, while up 5-4 in the third set, she missed those two match points on Anisimova’s serve and the match was anyone’s. In all, the fight was so intense because it was so evenly matched. Not lost by Osaka, but won by Anisimova.
“Going into this match I knew I had to be playing sharp if I wanted to give myself a chance,” Anisimova said. “Naomi is always going to be playing well … she’s an absolute champion … I knew I had to step up my game and be aggressive and I think that’s what I did in the second set. Honestly, I’m so grateful that I was able to play so well today and get this win. It means a lot.”