This time last year, in the opening round of the Nature Valley Open, Naomi Osaka began her grass-court season in highly disappointing fashion: suffering a 6-1 6-1 thrashing at the hands of qualifier Kristie Ahn. And on Centre Court on Monday, for a short time, it appeared that the demons of 2017 would haunt her once again.
Down 3-0 and then 6-3 in her clash with America’s Sachia Vickery, the 20-year-old former prodigy – whose big-serving, powerful game is widely expected to thrive on this surface – looked in serious trouble. Clearly a player struggling to adjust to the low bounce of the courts, she failed to land her forehand and backhand time and again as she targeted the baseline.
Nevertheless, Osaka nailed precise winners in the big moments to come out on the right side of multiple marathon games, and this ultimately helped her to a final scoreline that disguised the closeness of the contest.
The timing of Osaka’s brilliance got the better of her opponent’s more consistent rallying – and caused Vickery to crumble in the latter stages. Still, the no. 3 seed was not ready to christen this a great triumph.
“Obviously I didn’t lose, so that changes my impression of [being back on grass] a little bit,” the Indian Wells champion – who has risen 44 spots in the world rankings since last season’s Nottingham tournament – reflected post-match. “I feel that for the first match [on grass], I did pretty well. But I still feel like there’s a lot I can do better. And one of the main things I want to do is keep improving.”
While her best level was rarely present on Monday, it was evident from the way that Osaka dragged herself through this encounter that she has taken huge steps forward in the last twelve months. And the woman herself is the first to admit that these improvements have not all been physical.
“I’m just trying to be more mentally tough,” she said, reflecting upon what change she was most pleased to see in herself over the past year.
“I’m not sure if last year I would have been able to win this match from being a set down, so I’m really happy about that.”
Since last year’s difficult loss, Osaka has joined forces with Sascha Bajin: former hitting partner of Serena Williams. After spending eight years assisting the 23-time Grand Slam champion, Bajin has gone on to help Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki to their best runs of form in some time. Now, the German is helping to bring out the belief and mental strength in Osaka on which she can found her imperious groundstroke game.
Bajin was courtside – and on the court, at times, offering Osaka words of advice after she went 3-0 down in the opening set – for his protege’s collision with Vickery. After her success, he shared on social media how he ‘loved to see the progress’ in the 20-year-old – who is ‘maturing slowly’.
There are some occasions where Osaka looks far more mature than she does in others. Indian Wells – the most prestigious tennis title on offer outside of the Grand Slams and the WTA Finals – saw the youngster storm to her maiden WTA title, dismantling the likes of Maria Sharapova, Karolina Pliskova and Simona Halep en route. She followed that up with a win over Serena Williams the very next week in Miami. But in her next two tournaments, she was beaten in straight sets by lesser names in Julia Goerges and Shuai Zhang.
“I always play better against the higher ranked players,” Osaka acknowledged.
“I think it’s because I feel it’s always a really big opportunity, and I’ve always seen these players on TV… But at the same time, I feel like I’m in a position now where people want to beat me, too. So I just have to find a way to handle that pressure.”
Victory over Vickery was the next step in that journey for the world no. 18, and she will look to continue improving against world no. 101 Denisa Allertova – whose 6-3 6-1 defeat of Kristie Ahn on Monday saved Osaka from a rematch of last season’s horror show.
It will be another good test for Osaka. By ranking, she should handle her forthcoming opponent without much difficulty. But Allertova hit a career-high ranking of world no. 55 in 2016 – the same year that she sent former world no. 1 Ana Ivanovic into retirement.
And Osaka is still very much getting used to the British lawns. In June last year, the Japanese player lamented her lack of experience on the surface that hosts the sport’s most prestigious Grand Slam event. She reiterated this after her first round Nottingham triumph – during which she converted six of 14 break point opportunities, and struggled to find her rhythm.
“Growing up I’ve never played on grass or anything,” Osaka shared. “So going from clay to grass, it was a little bit of a kind of surprising thing [at first]. But now I’m [getting] used to it.”
In 2017, it took the entire grass-court season – short as it is – for Osaka to truly get herself going. The rising star did not win back-to-back matches on the surface until Wimbledon, where she had the misfortune of drawing eventual finalist Venus Williams in round three.
But every match win gives the Japanese star that little more experience that she lacks. And three set victories, should she come out the right side of them, could be blessings in disguise: giving her that bit more time to find her feet on court. The fact that she refuses to be satisfied with Monday’s form is just another factor in her favour on the road to success.
If Naomi Osaka can come through her next encounter unscathed, this is a major chance for her to start making a move on a surface that has all the potential to aid her game.