Sunday, April 18, 2021

Naomi Osaka Loses US Open Round of 16 Battle, Wins Bigger War

*Flushing, NY – Defending US Open champion, Naomi Osaka, who upended Serena Williams last year amid controversy that’ll go down in history, just lost her round of 16 match against Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic and her no. 1 ranking. It was her third match against Bencic in as many as five months, and she has now lost them all.

Suffice it to say, Osaka lost an important battle … but in this writer’s humble opinion, she actually won a more important war.

Naomi Osaka has a tennis game that any tennis player would envy. It has won her two Grand Slams (‘18 US Open and ‘18 Australian Open) and a prestigious Indian Wells title (‘18) and she did it all at the tender age of 21-years-old. There are a gaggle of professional players who far exceed her age (now 22), who haven’t even had a sniff at winning a Grand Slam, let alone two in the same year, one against the greatest women’s tennis player of all time. It took a lot of athletic maturity to achieve those aforementioned feats, but maturity can be experienced in a vacuum … especially for tennis players.

In the world of tennis – the epitome of an “individual sport”, the focus it takes to climb the very tall ladder up through pre-development, juniors and into the pros and upper echelons of the rankings, players can find themselves isolated and at a social deficit. Some manage it better than others, but there are those like Naomi Osaka who seem to represent those who struggle. The long days of practice and all the travel and the resultant lack of establishment of social roots can lead to the awkwardness or social immaturity that many feel characterizes the 22-year-old … which she readily admits to:

“For me, one of my biggest goals is to be more mature as a person,” she said.

“And I feel like in a way I am, but in other parts I’m very, like, three years old mentally, you know?”

But doing all the winning Naomi’s been doing has all but burst the bubble that protected her from the outside world of big bright lights and “scary” people with varying intentions. It has forced her to chip away at her shell of shyness and immaturity and face the tennis world and all those in the world in general who are fascinated by her high-profile accomplishments head-on. There have been growing pains, from her curious split with the man who coached her to a Grand Slam two-fer (Saschia Bajin), vaguely tweeting she didn’t “have fun” with him to being featured in awkward glammed-up photo shoots that came off more like a game of dress up or hastily walking out of press conferences due to a loss (Wimbledon), but the tennis prodigy has made significant strides in rising to the in-the-limelight challenge she’s inherited. But those significant strides culminated into one giant leap in recent days, during her ‘19 US Open defense campaign.

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osaka - bencic
Osaka – Bencic

Osaka’s meteoric ascent to the top tier of the winner’s podium of the ‘18 US Open – and who she had to beat to do it – made her the Cinderella of that event. She was no stranger to the tournament, given she quietly but efficiently made the third round in both ‘16 and ‘17 (and held match points on Madison Keys but lost them all), but her childlike demeanor coupled with how she bulldozed her way to the point of hoisting the trophy seemingly out of nowhere glamorized her run … and the world fully bought into it an fell in love with her. But – though not quite apples to apples, there was a new “Cinderella” in town this year … Coco Gauff.

Coco Gauff, a prodigious 14-year-old American, was given a wildcard to the US Open event this year and she took a sizable bite out of the Big Apple. It was unusual due to her young age, but the decision to do so was somewhat of a no-brainer. Coco had also received a wildcard at Wimbledon this past July ( the details of how being unknown) and made good on it; she advanced to the fourth round.  The teen even took out living legend and grass-court specialist – and her idol, Venus Williams while doing so. That made the Coco Gauff story that much bigger. Given that, it would’ve been sacrilege to not extend to the former juniors no. 1 and Grand Slam winner (Roland Garros) the opportunity to try her hand at Grand Slam glory again, this time on home soil.  And as it was in London, she made good on the decision.

“Little Coco” had a tremendous amount of weight on her shoulders, having become a media sensation and tournament draw, but the weight of such expectations didn’t crush her relatively underdeveloped frame or psyche. Instead, she put her game face on and presented fans with a dazzling display of grit and maturity, twice featured on one the tournament’s show courts, Louis Armstrong. She took out Anastasia Potapova (closer to being her peer, but with a notch or two under her belt) in round one and Timea Babos (considerably her senior and more experienced) in the second round, advancing to round three, where she’d collide with no other than Naomi Osaka … and on THE show court, Arthur Ashe.

The primetime “popcorn” matchup of last year’s Cinderella and defending champion, Osaka, against this year’s Cinderella and the “next big thing in women’s tennis,”  Gauff, had the BJK tennis center grounds all abuzz. The buildup was epic and, thusly, the expectations were very high. So, they came, they played and, long story short, Osaka gave her much younger colleague a schooling in “tennis with the big girls on the big stage.” The defending champ began the match modestly, but ultimately found an unassailable gear as the match wore on. Osaka was relentless in her determination to not be upstaged by the teen, taking the first set 6-3, then completely shutting her out in the second, 6-0. Gauff was left stunned, with a lesson learned … and very emotional. The latter was the proverbial battlefield upon which Osaka won her ‘19 US Open “war.”

It’s customary for match winners to give on-court interviews after they’ve done their work and have shaken hands with their opponent. And it was business as usual for Osaka after her match with Gauff. But instead of sticking to the script, as part of her interview Osaka proceeded to invite the dejected Gauff to join her. Gauff graciously declined the invite because “she knew she would be crying,” but Osaka insisted. The Japanese superstar allowed Coco to share the mic with her and “address her fans who came to see her,” and proceeded to use her time to tearfully encourage and congratulate the teen, her parents and her coaches for a job of raising and supporting well-done. It was a display of sportsmanship not often seen in the “individual sport” of professional tennis, which often breeds selfishness. The act catapulted Osaka from the position of being a shy and awkward youngster, to more of an elder and seasoned champion … a woman, I’d say. Her altruistic act reverberated around the world and further endeared her to her fans of old and likely gained her plenty of new.

In Osaka’s subsequent match, against Bencic, sure she lost and forfeited money, points and her number one status, but in the grand scheme she won … the battle of heart and sportsmanship, that is. And those are necessary endowments of a true champion.

As time goes by, Naomi Osaka won’t be remembered for losing a match in New York against a Swiss player in 2019, as she’ll likely quickly resume her winning ways, but she will be remembered for effectively becoming a woman, on Arthur Ashe court, right before our very eyes.

In her own words:

“I have this feeling of sadness, but I also feel like I have learned so much during this tournament. Honestly, of course I wanted to defend this tournament. [But] I feel like the steps that I have taken as a person have been much greater than, like, I would imagine at this point. So, I hope that I can keep growing.

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