Naomi Osaka is only 20 years old. When a 20-year-old player takes a lot of punches on tour, it shouldn’t be a cause for too much concern. Going through rough sequences shouldn’t be casually dismissed or shrugged off, but they certainly shouldn’t be interpreted as crises. It is in the nature of tennis for 20-year-olds to get whacked, to taste their own blood and learn just how difficult tour life can be. These hard knocks set the stage for prosperous careers — not for most, but for the players who know how to maximize their gifts.
Osaka’s phenomenal tennis at Indian Wells, en route to the first prestigious championship of her career, revealed a player who is capable of maximizing her gifts. That she followed her Indian Wells title with a victory over Serena Williams reflected the poise and tunnel vision of an uncommonly good player. Osaka has a luminous future ahead of her. Imagine what she is capable of achieving over the next 12 to 15 years. Walking through this dark corridor in the late spring and the summer of 2018 isn’t fun, but this journey represents growing pains more than a set of reasons to worry about her.
Why is this the case? Mostly because Osaka is so young and therefore needs patience. Another answer — not quite the most important one but realistically a close second — is that the WTA is loaded these days. Osaka’s path since her Indian Wells title has been bumpy. That walkway remained bumpy on Tuesday in Montreal, where Carla Suarez-Navarro excused Osaka from the Rogers Cup. Yet, the rocky ride endured by Osaka simply doesn’t contain bad losses. Less-than-ideal results are regularly frustrating, but that doesn’t mean the losses are bad (read: inexcusable or a waste of talent, if not both).
Just stop and realize the players Osaka has lost to at big tournaments since she won Indian Wells.
In Miami, it was Elina Svitolina. In Madrid — the one genuine exception to the rule — Osaka lost to Zhang Shuai.
In Rome: Simona Halep. At Roland Garros: eventual semifinalist Madison Keys. At Wimbledon: eventual champion Angelique Kerber. Then in Canada, Suarez-Navarro, who made the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and Indian Wells this year. She is not an easy out on hardcourts.
Osaka is a representative example not only of a player who keeps running into tough early-round opponents, but whose struggle to crack the top eight of the rankings leaves her vulnerable to more and more of those nasty early-round draws… which means more early-round losses… which means an inability to pile up rankings points… which means more nasty early-round draws, with the vicious cycle repeating itself over and over.
Naomi Osaka took down elite opponents in Indian Wells, but that isn’t going to happen all the time; at the very least, cultivating the consistency needed to beat top-tier foes on a relentless basis is something that will come in time. It certainly shouldn’t be expected now, at age 20. Osaka isn’t losing to cream puffs or tomato cans; she is being taken out by tough customers, all while she is playing at less than 100-percent health. Her return to hardcourts after the clay and grass seasons might have inspired the hope that she would roar back into form, but the loss to Suarez-Navarro put the brakes on that notion.
Is that cause for alarm? Everything written in this column is meant to underscore the point that it shouldn’t be.
Osaka isn’t running into an existential tennis crisis; she is running into the very formidable WTA Tour. Being patient with — and in — that knowledge is her foremost task right now.