French Open 2024: Naomi Osaka’s tennis still carries a magical force | Tennis News - Hindustan Times
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French Open 2024: Naomi Osaka’s tennis still carries a magical force

ByRutvick Mehta, Mumbai
May 31, 2024 08:57 AM IST

Against Swiatek, the former world no.1 was powerful, fearless and incisive; save for those little moments of blip towards the end of the third set.

The 2021 French Open, in many ways, showed the world for the first time the vulnerable side of Naomi Osaka. She withdrew from the tournament after her first-round win following her refusal to speak with the media during the tournament, citing “huge waves of anxiety” before doing so. She also revealed her struggles with depression between becoming a first-time Slam winner at the 2018 US Open to a four-time champion at the 2021 Australian Open. She hasn't gone past the third round of a major since.

Poland's Iga Swiatek (L) cheers Japan's Naomi Osaka after winning their women's singles match on Court Philippe-Chatrier on day four of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros Complex in Paris on May 29(AFP)
Poland's Iga Swiatek (L) cheers Japan's Naomi Osaka after winning their women's singles match on Court Philippe-Chatrier on day four of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros Complex in Paris on May 29(AFP)

The 2024 French Open, in many ways, reminded the world of the force that Osaka’s tennis still carries. Her mind too is in a seemingly better place. Addressing the post-match press conference wearing her trademark headphones and often a smile on Wednesday night in Paris, she was candid, thoughtful and also told us what she wrote in her little book soon after her second-round defeat. – “I'm proud of you”.

Osaka had just given Iga Swiatek’s scintillating clay run a mighty scare in her den, going down from a match point up in a three-set epic. Yet the feeling of pride wasn’t as much about the 7-6(1), 1-6, 7-5 scoreline as it was about the kind of tennis she delivered.

It was powerful, fearless and incisive; save for those little moments of blip towards the end of the third set. It was Osaka of pre-2021, a beast that could outhit Serena Williams and outplay Ash Barty. It was the kind that gave the former world No. 1 now ranked 134th the belief that she could soon get back up there.

“After I lost in Madrid (second round), I remember asking my team if they thought I could ever be a top-5 player again. And, granted, I didn't make it to the quarters or the semis here, (but) I feel like I'm kind of on my way back there," Osaka said.

It’s been a while. Through the 2021 and 2022 seasons, the Japanese-American took multiple breaks from the sport citing mental health issues. She missed the entire 2023 due to her pregnancy and returned this year to crash out in the opening round of the Australian Open and not got beyond the quarter-finals of any tournament since.

Across those two hours and 57 minutes on Court Philippe-Chatrier with Swiatek, Osaka’s “chapter 2 of this tennis journey” – as she termed it during her comeback in Australia – truly appeared to have turned a page.

Her movement, for which Osaka has been taking ballet classes of late, flowed through the red dirt. “I did feel like it was a dance," she said. Her fitness, which she mentioned was her primary focus returning to top level tennis after her maternity break, shone through the bruising battle. Her line-kissing ball striking, which took even Serena’s might down at the US Open, was up and running again. Her big serves, which won 91% points behind the first serve and 100% behind the second during the second set, were booming again.

All of that on a surface Osaka least prefers and against an opponent who thrives on it. No wonder Osaka fancies a Swiatek showdown at the US Open come August-September.

"I feel like I played her on her better surface. I'm a hard-court kid, so I would love to play her on my surface and see what happens,” Osaka said. “I also said in Australia that I'm kind of setting myself up for September anyway."

The “results may not be result-ing” for now, she acknowledged, but Osaka gradually Osaka-ing adds another layer of star power to the women’s tour. Four-time major winner Swiatek, reigning Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka and 2022 Wimbledon titlist Elena Rybakina have brought in much-needed strength and stability to it, and Osaka has the potential and pedigree to break in and shake things up.

It can also renew a rivalry that promised much before being put on hold due to Osaka's time away. Just like the Osaka-Barty duels (2-2 head-to-head record) that ended prematurely after the latter's retirement, Osaka, 26, and Swiatek had split a win each in 2019 and 2022. Both are also the only active women players aged under 30 with more than two Slam titles.

Swiatek has got one up for now, but Osaka is awaiting another crack. And Swiatek knows that the Osaka 2.0 she faced in Paris was a lot like Osaka 1.0.

“I'm happy that she's back, because her tennis deserves to be on the biggest stages,” Swiatek said of Osaka. “She deserves to be there, because she has great tennis.”

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