With rain threatening under light grey skies in Nottingham, Naomi Osaka slumped in frustration for the umpteenth time as she pulled out of a shot early and watched the ball go long. The big-serving, powerful 19-year-old was a headline draw to anyone who knew their tennis at the Aegon Open – and should have caught the attention of any semi-informed onlooker. Just two or three days after 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko stormed to an incredible maiden Grand Slam trophy – unseeded in Paris – the feeling that anything is possible on the women’s tennis tour has never been stronger.
But on Court Number Four on the first day of main draw play – in Osaka’s first grass-court match of the season – the woman who beat Ostapenko in the opening round of Roland Garros last year was dismissed by qualifier Kristie Ahn: 6-1 6-1.
She was as crushed as if she had lost the Roland Garros final.
“This is only like my third or fourth tournament on grass,” the crestfallen world no. 62 reported after her match. “I don’t feel like I can say I wasn’t prepared, because I was practising a lot for the last two days. But I don’t really know how to play that well on it, obviously.”
The news may come as a surprise to many. Osaka is one of the game’s most raw and promising talents, and her big-striking shots are surely made to excel on the faster surfaces. But on Monday in Nottingham, the youngster appeared confused and frustrated.
“People say grass is supposed to be good for my game, but I don’t know. I’m just so depressed right now,” the teen sighed, before adding: “I like hard-courts the most.”
It is hardly a surprise. Osaka may have made the third round at the 2016 French Open – giving Simona Halep a run for her money before bowing out – but she entered Nottingham on a four match losing streak on dirt. Her last win came in the Stuttgart third round in April.
Already, the promise of a new start on a new surface has taken a blow.
“I had goals [for the grass-court season] starting this tournament, but now I just want to win a match before Wimbledon, hopefully,” a subdued Osaka stated.
The Japanesewoman’s misery is probably deepened by the fact that injuries have laid her low often in recent times – including an ankle injury that sidelined her for two months last season. Her current ranking does not do justice to her ability to dominate. But the fact that she played little to no grass-court tennis last season (she lost in Birmingham qualifying) bears a mixture of positives and negatives.
“I mean, not having ranking point to defend, that’s a bonus, I guess,” Osaka weighed up. “But also a little bit bad because it kind of shows that I haven’t played on grass.
“I’m trying not to think so much about points and stuff because it stresses me out a little, so I just want to play well and hopefully I’ll win a few more matches.”
In regard to contemporary Ostapenko’s recent victory, the no. 8 seed did not betray whether or not she found it a surprise. A one-love leader in their head-to-head record, she still struggles to recall her 2016 French Open encounter with the Latvian that only recently became famous.
“I don’t really remember the match, I just remember how she played,” Osaka recalls. “And I was kind of taking the risks, and it paid off in that match.”
“I honestly don’t really think [Jelena] takes that many risks. She hits cross-court until she has a chance. But I don’t really think she hits down the line that much, you know. I actually think she plays pretty smart, but hits hard, and that’s why people think she’s a risk taker.”
Thus, Osaka does not draw many comparisons between her game and Ostapenko’s. Nevertheless, she rates the chances of herself and other underdogs winning a major in the near future.
“Everyone kind of knows that the draws are quite open right now, since Serena’s gone and so’s Sharapova,” she commented. “And since Monica [Puig] won the gold [medal, at the Rio Olympics] everyone’s kind of thinking that, like, ‘Maybe I can win.’”
This is the mentality that the young rising star enters each tournament with, but in her own words: “It’s not working out for me right now!”
Nevertheless, to panic so early would be hugely detrimental. The grass-court season has only just begun, and fellow former prodigies have entered their twenties without yet having made a significant breakthrough. There are weeks ahead for the Osaka and her team to get to grips with the lawns – and there is every chance of it happening just in time for Wimbledon.
Thanks for reading! What do you think of Naomi Osaka’s game? Have you had your eye on her? Let me know in the comments!