This was by no means the method it was supposed to go for Naomi Osaka, the greatest new star in tennis, whose fame, attain and success appeared to haven’t any limits at the begin of the 12 months.
Since then, Osaka has skilled a collection of setbacks and losses so overwhelming that she mentioned after the newest one, on Friday evening at the U.S. Open, that she didn’t know when she would play her subsequent tennis match.
Osaka misplaced in three tight and unusually temperamental units to a rising, unseeded 18-year-old Canadian named Leylah Fernandez in the third spherical of the Open that Osaka received a 12 months in the past.
Then, in her post-match information convention, she started to tear up, giving the world, by a small group of journalists and a financial institution of tv cameras, one other troubling portrait of the frame of mind of a lady who would seem to have the whole lot — cash, fame, glamour, the admiration of tens of millions of followers on a number of continents.
“How do I go around saying this,” Osaka started, choking again tears, however laying aside a information convention moderator who tried to give her aid as she started to tear up. “I really feel like for me not too long ago, once I win I don’t really feel pleased, I really feel extra like a aid. And then once I lose I really feel very unhappy. And I don’t assume that’s regular.
“This could be very arduous to articulate,” she continued after accumulating herself. “Well, basically. I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match.”
The prospect of Osaka stepping away from the sport indefinitely will undoubtedly ship shock waves by the tennis-sphere. The daughter of a Japanese mom and a Haitian father who’s a citizen of her native Japan, although she was raised largely in the United States, Osaka is the world’s highest-paid feminine athlete, one in all the greatest celebrities in sports activities, and a quiet, highly effective embodiment of a brand new technology of athletes who’re unafraid to share their views on civil rights and social justice.
Just weeks in the past, Osaka obtained one in all the highest honors in all of sports activities — lighting the cauldron at the Olympic Games in her residence nation, the place she has come to symbolize a brand new, multiracial future for Japan.
As it usually can, although, all of that has come at a value that followers have grow to be all too aware of as of late: an immense strain to carry out that may bother an individual of any age.
Osaka, 24, took a break earlier this 12 months, when she dropped out of the French Open over a confrontation with match organizers over whether or not she would seem at her post-match information conferences, which she mentioned precipitated an excessive amount of psychological anguish for her and her fellow gamers.
Her fellow gamers have been largely sympathetic however didn’t comply with her lead, and after she was fined for skipping her necessary media duties, she defaulted her second-round match, telling the world she had been experiencing “long bouts of depression” since 2018 and can be taking a while to cope with her psychological well being. She skipped Wimbledon however returned for the Olympics, the place she misplaced in the third spherical and didn’t win a medal.
Last month in Mason, Ohio, in her first information convention in three months, she misplaced composure and briefly left the room the place the distant interview session was being carried out, after a query about how she may stability her resistance to information conferences with the incontrovertible fact that her outdoors pursuits benefited from the publicity she obtained from the media. She quickly returned to the room.
Just days in the past, on the eve of this U.S. Open, Osaka spoke of making an attempt to discover a new strategy to life and tennis that centered on not beating herself up when issues didn’t go completely and on celebrating small victories, even simply getting off the bed in the morning.
After Friday evening, it’s clear that these efforts stay a piece in progress, work that for the foreseeable future will happen elsewhere than the grueling, globe-trotting 11-month strain cooker that’s elite skilled tennis.
In a summer season and season of battle for Osaka, and after dropping in the third spherical of the U.S. Open to an unseeded teenager, it’s tough to think about what comes subsequent.
The upset, a 5-7, 7-6 (2), 6-Four victory for Fernandez, got here on the identical court docket the place Osaka had grow to be a world star by shocking Serena Williams to win the 2018 U.S. Open. Osaka has since won three more Grand Slam singles titles, including the one at last year’s Open.
The 73rd-ranked Fernandez, a quick and dynamic left-hander, had never faced Osaka, but she did not appear intimidated, clenching her fist after winning key points and often dictating play with her topspin forehand.
Osaka broke Fernandez’s serve at 5-5 in the second set with a backhand winner and then served for the match. She had not faced even a break point at that stage but was unable to close out the victory. Fernandez went on to win the first five points of the ensuing tiebreaker, prompting Osaka to hurl her racket to the court. Fernandez then evened the match at one set apiece.
“I guess I wanted to stay on the court a little bit longer, and I wanted to put on a show for everybody here,” Fernandez said in her post-match interview. “One hour was just not enough for me on court.”
Fernandez quickly took the lead in the third set by breaking Osaka’s serve again in the opening game, and though Osaka began to find her range in her own service games, she could not solve Fernandez’s slower left-handed serve.
Osaka did not hide her frustration. After Fernandez hit a net-cord winner in the second game of the final set to go up, 40-15, Osaka took hold of the ball and smacked it high into the stands, receiving a code-of-conduct warning for ball abuse.
“I’m really sorry about that,” Osaka said of her behavior. “I was telling myself to be calm, but I feel like maybe there was a boiling point. Normally I feel like I like challenges. But recently I feel very anxious when things don’t go my way, and I feel like you can feel that. I’m not really sure why it happens the way it happens now.”
Osaka compared her attitude on Friday to that of “a little kid.” But Fernandez, six years her junior, did not struggle to remain fully focused on the match. She faced no break points on her serve in the final set, and when it came time to serve for the most significant victory of her career, she held at love. At 30-0, she hit a terrific backhand drop-shot winner, and on Fernandez’s first match point, Osaka misjudged a forehand and hit it wide.
Arms up and smiling, Fernandez jogged forward to the net for the handshake.
“From the very beginning, right before the match, I knew I was able to win,” she said.
All three of Osaka’s defeats this summer have come against left-handers: Marketa Vondrousova at the Olympics, Jil Teichmann in Ohio and now Fernandez.
This was the first major upset of the U.S. Open women’s tournament, which, despite the depth of talent in the women’s game, had largely respected the seedings in the first two rounds. But Friday’s result was the latest setback for Osaka, the biggest star in the women’s game after Williams. Since winning the Australian Open in February, she has played sparingly and has not won another title or even reached another semifinal.
After defeating Marie Bouzkova in straight sets in the first round in New York, Osaka received a walkover in the second round when Olga Danilova withdrew because of illness.
But because of her lack of recent match play, the unexpected break did not turn out to be an advantage. “I think I would have preferred to play a match,” Osaka said.
Fernandez, brimming with energy and optimism, was able to capitalize.
“I wasn’t really focused on Naomi. I was only focused on myself, my game, what I needed to do,” she said. “Having the crowd there supporting me and backing me up after every point, it’s amazing. It gave me the energy to keep fighting, to keep working and keep running for those balls that she hit.”
It was a memorable evening for teenagers in Arthur Ashe Stadium. In the preceding match, Carlos Alcaraz, a dynamic Spanish 18-year-old, eliminated the No. 3 men’s seed, Stefanos Tsitsipas, in a momentum-shifting thriller that came down to a fifth-set tiebreaker. That was the final match of the day session, and when the arena had been cleared and the night-session crowd had taken their seats, Fernandez followed Alcaraz’s lead.
Ben Rothenberg contributed reporting.