Naomi Osaka was back at the tennis court in New York on Monday night, not far from where she first started hitting a tennis ball as a child, and where her year began 12 months and what seems like a lifetime ago.
The journey began with her refusal to play tennis after another police shooting of a black man. Then came her provocative and powerful masks, each decorated with the name of a victim of police brutality, as well as the third Grand Slam title in her career. Then there were magazine covers; a magical run in Australia; a stalemate with the press in Paris; revelations that she struggles with mental health; her decision to skip Wimbledon, the biggest tennis championship; followed by a triumphant-until-not-return in Tokyo, where she lit the Olympic cauldron for her homeland.
Osaka has become the rare tennis player whose presence raises the temperature of even something routine: a first-round match against an unheralded but improving 23-year-old Czech named Marie Bouzkova.
If there’s one thing Osaka has shown throughout her young career, it’s that nothing is off her routine.
She walked into a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday night as the defending champion and number three at the US Open, just over six months away from being declared virtually unbeatable on hard court, where she has taken each of her four wins. Grand Slam titles.
She has the kind of resume that generally makes a player a firm favorite not only to win her first game, but also to capture her third US Open title in four years. In the back of the field, she bounces on her toes like a boxer and does her signature thigh whack while waiting for her opponent’s serve.
Steve Nash, the Hall of Fame basketball player and coach of the Brooklyn Nets, and Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight champion, were part of a crowd of nearly 20,000 that was much bigger and more electric than the usual opening night of this 14-day tournament.
Would it be surprised if Osaka had lost, after the tumultuous ride she had last year and the mediocre results she achieved this summer? She had played just nine games since April and had a 5-5 record, including a default at the French Open.
She didn’t lose, but Osaka struggled through a tough first set against Bouzkova, fighting to find her rhythm against the hard-hitting Czech. She had to save eight break points. But after splitting the first eight games, Osaka started pushing Bouzkova deep into the back of the field with her clean, powerful strokes and, unsurprisingly, started winning most of the key points as well. She played eight of the next nine games, winning 6-4, 6-1.
However, it was a much closer game than the scoreline suggested, filled with tight matches, long runs and close rallies, but also a more promising opening for her first Grand Slam in three months than the last time she undertook either sport. most valued events.
In May, Osaka arrived in Paris for the French Open and declared that she would no longer participate in the mandatory press conferences that all players sit, win or lose after a match, if their attendance is requested. She said they were causing too much mental stress and that she would pay tens of thousands of dollars in fines instead.
Within days, the organizers of the French Open, with the support of the leaders of the other three Grand Slam events, threatened to kick her out of the tournament. A day later, Osaka pulled out and announced she was taking a break from the sport and told the world that she had been battling depression for nearly three years.
On Sunday, just over 24 hours before her opening game at the US Open, another statement was made for the tournament. This one was much less confrontational and nuanced, but still had a defiant jab to anyone who criticized her recent underperformance, at the French Open or the Olympics, where she was badly beaten in the round of 16 by Marketa Vondrousova, a another young and unproven Czech player, 38th in the world.
In an Instagram post that she also shared on TwitterOsaka said that on reflection she had realized that she is far too critical of herself.
“I guess I’m never good enough,” she wrote. “I’ve never told myself I’ve done well, but I’m constantly telling myself I’m bad or I could do better.”
She urged people to appreciate the smallest achievements, even getting out of bed and fighting procrastination, and promised to celebrate her own achievements more.
“Your life is yours and you should not value yourself by the standards of others,” she wrote. “I know I give my heart to everything I can and if that isn’t good enough for some then my apologies, but I can’t burden myself with those expectations anymore. When I see everything that is happening in the world, I feel that when I wake up in the morning, that is a victory. That’s how I come.”
Everyone can sometimes guess what exactly Osaka meant. She’s like a tennis sphinx, insisting that the message people receive from her is more important than the message she might be trying to get across.
She has also admitted a degree of impulsivity. When she thinks or feels something, she may well just say it, or write it, or do it, without thinking about all the consequences.
On Friday, however, Osaka allowed her to play much better as she plays with a goal beyond competing for another trophy and $2.5 million, the prize for winning the US Open.
“I’m the type of player who plays better when I have a reason or when I have a goal or when I’m driven to something,” she said at a pre-tournament press conference. “In New York last year, my biggest goal was to get that message across. I feel like I did a good job there. Right now I don’t have a big message to get across. So it will be very interesting to see what drives me.”
Osaka seems to have called for a purpose – playing without beating itself for every mistake, every missed opportunity and, if it happens, another loss, even as the chorus of critics gets louder.
She’s heard all the criticism and knows better than anyone that she hasn’t made it to a quarter-final since March, let alone a Grand Slam final. She knows how little she’s played this year – remarkably little given her standing and her status as winner of two of the last four Grand Slams and four of the last 11.
This, she hopes, will be the Grand Slam as she begins to get over her obsession with perfection that leads to disappointment when something she does is great but not flawless. Amid the thousands of screaming fans at the biggest tennis stadium on Monday night, Osaka’s ear stayed tuned to the high-pitched whine of a little girl sitting low off the court.
“I just want to be happy knowing that I gave my best and that even though I didn’t play perfectly, I was able to win a match in two sets,” she said after her win. “Or if I have to fight, then play a match in three sets, knowing I made a few mistakes, but it’s okay at the end of the day because I will learn from the matches I will continue to play.”
“It’s not really a tournament thing,” she added as the evening drew to a close. “It’s more of a life thing.”