Naomi Osaka’s last match in 2021 was a third round defeat at the US Open to Leylah Fernandez. Since Osaka opened up about her mental health struggles at the French Open, the mainstream media, public opinion, and perhaps even Naomi Osaka herself have held a narrative that her mental health struggles have led to a decline in form. This take is widely inaccurate, and here is why…
1. Her clay and grass results have always been mediocre
Osaka has yet to advance past the 3rd Round at the French Open or Wimbledon, and has never beaten a Top 20 player on clay or grass. In fact, she has not reached a final on clay or grass outside of the Grand Slams either. It hasn’t necessarily even been Top 20 players that have always stopped her either. Her most recent defeats at these Grand Slams were to the World No.42 and No.39, respectively.
When she withdrew from the French Open this year after her 1st round this year, some of the media suggested we may not see Osaka play again for a significant amount of time, and that it could be the end of her time as one of the top players in women’s tennis. However, I saw the withdrawal as one of convenience because of the controversy surrounding her refusing to do press, given that she knew she probably wasn’t going to have a deep run anyway. And for Osaka, tournament withdrawals are not something which should be seen as a sign of decline, but something to be expected. After all, Naomi Osaka is likely the only player in tennis history to pull out of the same event twice (as she did at the 2020 Western & Southern Open).
By withdrawing from the French Open and Wimbledon, it made her perceived ability seem stronger, as now she has not lost at either since 2019 so there is less recent data to go on for realists and statisticians to class her as a one-surface player. I was confident that she would return for the Olympics given it was in Tokyo and on hard court (the one surface she has beaten Top 20 players on) and unsurprisingly (to me anyway) this was her next tournament, and she also played a major role in the Opening Ceremony.
2. Osaka was rusty at the Olympics
Out of Osaka’s three most recent defeats, this was the only one that was even the slightest bit surprising to me, but it was still very explainable and too soon to suggest a decline in form. To be honest, I did think that Osaka would walk away with Olympic Gold. The tournament was in her home country, it was on a hard court, and she was not ranked No.1 nor was defending champion. All the conditions required for Osaka to succeed were there. Besides, perhaps match practice. This was Osaka’s first tournament in almost two months and her first on a hard court in nearly four months. As a result, she ended up losing in the 3rd Round to Marketa Vondrousova.
The hype over Osaka due to her marketable nationality and attitudes have made both the public and perhaps even Osaka herself believe her tennis ability is higher than it actually is in reality. Ever since her 2018 US Open victory, the mainstream tennis media has pushed her as Serena’s successor, forming a general consensus by that she was clearly the best player in the WTA. But can we really call someone be the best player in the world if they have never beaten anyone in the Top 20 on two of the three playing surfaces? I find that questionable. If she is, though, then that raises another question about how weak the women’s game must be for that to be the case.
Serena in her prime may have been able to turn up at a tournament having not played for a while and emerge victorious, but Osaka is not at the same level even if the field she is competing in is considerably weaker. Therefore, I did not see the defeat at the Olympics as a sign of decline but that her ability is not high enough to turn up at tournaments and win them without recent match practice.
3. Tour events are no longer significant
Due to the the younger generations watching Serena Williams and the ATP’s “Big 3” chase after Grand Slam milestones during their impressionable teenage/young adult years, they have been inspired to do the same and so tour events have lost all significance. They realize that very few tournaments will actually give you a legacy or clout, and so all events outside of the Grand Slams, Olympics, and Tour Finals feel like nothing more than competitive exhibitions in the current era.
That is why Osaka’s 3rd Round loss to Jil Teichmann in Cincinatti was extremely insignificant to me. She is arguably the player the furthest on the spectrum of not giving any importance to tour events. Outside of her four Grand Slam titles, she only has three other WTA titles to her name. Therefore, suggesting that she was in decline because of this defeat is nothing short of absurd.
4. Osaka is woeful as defending champion
Naomi Osaka has never successfully defended a title at any level, and none of her title defenses have even been close, falling before the quarterfinals in all of them.
Osaka’s title defense attempts to date…
- Won 2018 Indian Wells, lost in the 4th round in 2019
- Won 2018 US Open, lost in the 4th round in 2019
- Won 2019 Australian Open, lost in the 3rd round in 2020
- Won 2020 US Open, lost in the 3rd round in 2021
Therefore, Osaka’s loss to Leylah Fernandez should not be seen as shock in the slightest, as based on her title defense record throughout her career, a pre-QF exit was expected. This demonstrates that Osaka has been unable to deal with the pressure of being a title favorite (be it defending champion and/or World No.1) throughout her career, and that any mental health struggles have not resulted in her decline.
Overall, the sense of invincibility that the tennis media seemed to give Osaka was unjustified and almost harsh on Osaka herself, as it made her feel as she was put in a place where she had to deliver to expectations her tennis ability hasn’t been capable of to date. Two of the four Grand Slams each year being on hard courts have inflated her Grand Slam count. If her specialism had been on clay or grass, she would have likely only had a maximum two Grand Slams as opposed to the four she possesses (assuming the same career trajectory where she cannot win a tournament when ranked No.1 or defending champion).
That is why Grand Slam titles alone should not be the sole measurement of who is the better tennis player. Osaka might have the best peak level in today’s WTA, but her average level is definitely below the average level of some of her peers. The best player should be the one most likely to win any given match, not the person most likely to win in their preferred conditions. That is why I believe her recent defeats do not show a decline but highlight her real ability throughout her career.
In conclusion, if Naomi Osaka claims to be struggling with her mental health, we have no reason to dismiss that and I hope she gets the help she feels she needs. However, unlike the tennis media’s claims, there is no evidence that is the cause for her decline, because there is no decline yet–this is merely just the reality of her inconsistency. There can only be a case for such a narrative if she does not emerge victorious at the 2022 US Open and there aren’t any extenuating circumstances as to why she isn’t walking out of New York next year with the trophy.
Main Photo from Getty.