Naomi Osaka Is Out Of The Australian Open, But Happier On The Court
4:42 PM EST on January 21, 2022
By all available evidence, Andy Murray is the biggest pro tennis fan in pro tennis, often live-tweeting his sofa-borne takes like a civilian. Earlier this week, after watching Naomi Osaka delete her second-round opponent Madison Brengle in a 20-minute 6-0 first set, an admiring Andy posed a question to the tweeps: "Anyone hit the ball cleaner from the baseline than @naomiosaka?"
Had Murray been watching, and surely he was, Osaka's third-round match on Friday would've supplied a worthy answer to that question. Amanda Anisimova took out the defending Australian Open champ 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5) in a match full of crunchy and hypnotic baseline exchanges.
It's possible to isolate the exact moment at which this became a real battle: Anisimova breaking serve in the second set, and breaking into a smile. She went on to take the second, fend off two match points at the tail end of the third, and take the deciding tiebreak.
In the final accounting, Anisimova hit 46 winners to Osaka's 21, and 44 errors to Osaka's 45. What distinguished the players most was the return of serve, always a weak point for Osaka and a strength of Anisimova, who excels at driving the ball deep from uncomfortable court positions. The two had never played before, and Osaka was surprised by the ball coming her way.
"It’s not strong, but it just comes fast," she said afterward. "I wouldn’t say it’s heavy, but it just comes so quickly at me that I felt I didn’t really have time to set up and stuff. It just really is low to the ground."
On paper Osaka lost to the No. 60 player in the world, though one look at Anisimova's technique, in particular her ridiculously clean backhand, would reveal her underlying talent level. It wasn't long ago that the 20-year-old American had the results to match. In 2019, Anisimova made the fourth round of the Australian Open, the semifinal of the French Open, and reached No. 21 in the world. That summer, her father Konstantin died of a heart attack; she has since said that she didn't properly "recover" from that loss before she rushed back onto the court. The pandemic seasons saw her ranking tumble into the 80s, though at the 2021 U.S. Open, she showed the pace and skill of old in a deciding tiebreak loss to No. 4 seed Karolina Pliskova. That looked like a struggling player rounding back into top form. Now she's started this year 8-0, with one title in the bag, a fourth-round berth at the Open, and the type of statement win that can reinvigorate a career.
Osaka was looking for stability of her own at the tail end of 2021. After she lost at the U.S. Open, she said tennis no longer made her happy and cleared her calendar for the rest of the year. “I only really have one major goal this year, and it’s completely unrelated to results and stuff like that,” Osaka said after winning her first match at a warmup for the Open. “For me, I just want to feel like every time I step on the court I’m either—not that I’m either, but I’m having fun. I can walk off the court knowing that, even if I lost, I tried as hard as I could.”
At various points in this tournament, you could see Osaka consciously smiling as she played, as if retraining her mindset. "Now I'm in this position where if I lose to someone, it might make a headline, but I also think it kind of grows more superstars, and that's good for the game," she said after the loss. "It's kind of like everything's coming full circle."