By Matt Zemek
Naomi Osaka’s exit from the U.S. Open hopefully shed some light on her exit from Roland Garros and, more broadly, her struggles this year.
We’re going to address the magnificent performance by Leylah Fernandez in a separate post – we’re definitely going to give her due praise after Friday night’s upset win – but for now, something has to be said about Osaka, who leaves the stage of tennis in 2021 with a complicated story fans might be able to understand better than they did in early June.
The Osaka situation at Roland Garros understandably created an uproar. It was easy to think that Osaka left Paris because she doesn’t like clay and doesn’t play well on the surface, and simply wanted to avoid the relentless waves of predictable questions about why she can’t perform on non-hardcourt surfaces in general. The fact that Osaka had to release a second statement – which we all agree should have been her first statement – complicated the matter. She certainly bore some responsibility for creating that mess.
Yet, Roland Garros and the ITF, by coming out with a severe statement on that turbulent weekend in France, did not help matters. That was not a politically astute move from the powers that be. Given the political weight and clout they all possess, their heavy-handed response to Osaka was an appalling and entirely preventable miscalculation. It was, in tennis parlance, an unforced error.
Now that Osaka has been bounced early from a hardcourt tournament, however, I would like to think that Osaka’s problems go beyond surface-specific performance and any perceived desire to avoid clay or grass questions. Her problems go deeper than playing surfaces… and I hope we can all see that.
More than that, I hope we can see the difference between lying – fundamental human dishonesty – and failure. There’s a Pacific Ocean’s worth of difference between those two things.
Telling a lie means that a person knows what the truth is and then directly claims something different or knowingly acts in an opposite way so as to deceive, mislead, manipulate, or generally reengineer the details of a given situation.
To fail to act in accordance with personal resolutions is not lying. It is precisely a failure, not dishonesty.
Naomi Osaka said earlier in the week that she would try to enjoy experiences more and be in the moment more, instead of worrying about everything going on around her. Smile more, relax more. It was an adjustment to freshen up her mind and establish restoration of her outlook, her attitude, her game.
The implosion we witnessed at the end of the second set and the start of the third set did not reflect any of those things… but that doesn’t mean Osaka lied. It means she failed. She fell short of what she resolved to do in New York.
We make New Year’s resolutions or other various resolutions to ourselves all the time. We’re going to lose five pounds. We’re going to read that book. We’re going to write that novel. We’re going to do that art project.
If we don’t do any of those things, we’re not being dishonest. We just lack the clarity or the circumstances in which to execute the plans we have for ourselves.
Osaka does have a management team which has led her astray to a degree. How much Osaka allows her life and her tennis career to be overmanaged is her responsibility, but it’s ridiculous for all of us to expect her to intuitively know how much management she needs in her life. It must be impossibly complicated for her to deal with. This isn’t something a human being naturally knows how to do.
Osaka has a general idea of what she wants in life: peace of mind, inner relaxation, less self-loathing… but how she gets there is a path she can’t see yet, which seems pretty darn normal for a 23-year-old in a crazy, broken world, even though she’s a 23-year-old with tens of millions of dollars. That doesn’t shield a person from unhappiness, as we should all be able to understand.
If anyone thought Naomi Osaka would magically snap back into focus because she was playing on hardcourts again, playing at a tournament (the U.S. Open) she had won two of the last three years, maybe this loss will make a lot of people think twice about the notion that the storms of the late spring and summer were more about Osaka’s attempts to avoid questions about clay and grass.
Maybe this is just a confused human being searching for answers which transcend tennis… and maybe we can leave it at that, hoping this soul will find peace and clarity in the offseason to come.