the last time we see her on a tennis court for awhile, Naomi Osaka told us she plays better with a purpose.
Tennis is a grueling sport that requires a demanding year-long training and tournament schedule. Some players endure it for money, fame, on-court accolades, or maybe a mix of all three, but for Osaka that has never seemed to be enough. She has plenty of those things.
Last year, her message was clear. She walked onto Arthur Ashe Stadium seven times with seven different masks, each one featuring the name of a different victim of racial injustice, and she never lost a match. In 2021, it’s not as clear.
“I don’t really have that big of a message to push across at all,” she said in a pre-tournament press conference. “It’s going to be really interesting to see what drives me.”
That quote seems prescient now. On Friday night, after going down 0-5 in a tiebreaker, Osaka slammed her racket and screamed into the September air. Her body language, at times, seemed dejected, as if defeat to her opponent, 18-year-old qualifier Leylah Fernandez, was inevitable. It was all so un-Osaka like. This was the young woman who upset Serena Williams at age 20, on these same court. Every aspect of her game had exuded power: her stoicism, her serve, her forehand, her aggression from the baseline. On Friday, she looked lost.
After falling to Fernandez, Osaka explained why. When she wins, she doesn’t feel joy, but relief. When she loses, she feels sad. Pulling her visor down her eyes, she finished the press conference by saying she doesn’t know when she’ll play her next match. Osaka’s words were striking, but we had heard them before. In 2012, Andre Agassi described that same emotion – relief – when he won his first and only Wimbledon title in 1992.
“For me,” he said to The New York Times, “winning Wimbledon didn’t seem to last nearly as long as losing did.”
In the early 2000s, Mats Wilander told journalist Paul Fein that after he’d finally reached No. 1 in 1988, he didn’t feel anything.
DAN WOLKEN:Naomi Osaka owes us nothing, but her future will loom over tennis world