Missing Indian Wells underscores Naomi Osaka’s need for a reset

Ashleigh Barty is the best women’s tennis player in the world. Naomi Osaka is second-best. There is no question that Osaka is the best hardcourt player in women’s tennis, but Barty now owns a Wimbledon title in addition to her Roland Garros championship. Barty’s wins in significant hardcourt tournaments in Miami and Cincinnati this year show that from January through November, from start to finish, the Australian is a better and more complete tennis player on all surfaces than Osaka is.

It’s true that Osaka owns four major titles compared to just two for Barty, but Barty will end 2021 with the World No. 1 ranking, a central indicator of a tennis player’s excellence over the course of a full season. Barty has added to her major trophy haul this year and has reached several important finals: Wimbledon, Miami, Cincinnati, Madrid, and Stuttgart. Osaka can keep her claim as the best hardcourter on the planet, but Barty has been able to collect high-end achievements across all three surfaces.

Osaka’s decision to not play Indian Wells might come as a surprise, given that the tournament is a hardcourt event. Yet, when considering what Osaka has been through this year, it’s not surprising she has chosen to step away from the California desert.

Osaka’s taxing and draining 2021 is most immediately associated with her decision to withdraw from Roland Garros in the midst of a firestorm surrounding her unwillingness to do press conferences after matches. That controversy could have been avoided or minimized in so many different ways, but Osaka wasn’t entirely sure how to handle it. The four Grand Slam tournaments behaved very poorly toward her, and Osaka walked away from that stressful week in Paris with more scars than she probably expected. She didn’t play Wimbledon, needing a mental health break and a chance to gather herself for the next important moment of her year.

The Tokyo Olympics did not bring Osaka a gold medal, but they still created the moment of a lifetime for her: a chance to light the Olympic flame in the Summer Olympic Opening Ceremony on July 23. Osaka won the Australian Open, then crashed to one of her low points in Paris, and then lit the Olympic flame. That’s quite a lot for any person in a four-year stretch. Osaka packed those three emotional occurrences into six months.

It was not shocking that Osaka failed to win the U.S. Open, given the emotional turbulence which has marked her 2021 journey. If there was a surprise, it was only that a 19-year-old, Leylah Fernandez, was the one who knocked her out of the Open in New York. The 2021 U.S. Open women’s tournament created one of the most improbable major singles finals of all time, with two teenagers — Fernandez and 18-year-old Emma Raducanu — came from nowhere to surge to the final. Raducanu played a brilliant final to win a first major title after playing just three main-tour events (250s or higher). The teenagers beat the veterans at every turn. That was certainly surprising, but Osaka not having the emotional fuel needed to be at her best was a predictable turn of events.

Osaka, very simply, needs mental and holistic refreshment. She doesn’t need to be playing tennis right now. Finding ways to become more relaxed, more tolerant of her own insecurities and imperfections, and more in love with tennis, should be Osaka’s priorities right now. Stepping away from Indian Wells can enable Osaka to appreciate her journey more and — in the course of time — help her remember why tennis can be fun.

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