By Sharada Iyer, Tennis With An Accent
A couple of days before the start of the Australian Open 2022, Naomi Osaka held a Q&A session on Instagram.
Replying to one of the statements that told her to “enter every match” in the tournament like she “had something to prove”, Osaka said the following:
“Respectfully, I don’t have anything to prove. Before my first Slam, I was told I had potential, but probably not going to capitalize on it. After my first Slam, I was told I got lucky, and I was a one hit wonder. After my second Slam, I was told that I could be great but I was unsure. After my third and fourth Slams, I was told I will only be good on hard courts. Moral of the story – people are always going to have something to say and IDGAF anymore.”
Two matches into the seven-match bridge on the path to a title defense, the 2021 Australian Open champion seems to be doing just that. How? By centring her attention where she needs to: on the court. Interestingly, although she made her way through each of her opening rounds with almost no problems, those moments have volubly demonstrated how she has successfully lived up to her pledged commitment.
In her first-round match against Colombia’s Camila Osorio, Osaka let a 5-1 lead slip away from her racquet in the opening set and found herself going on the back foot. Nonetheless, while she kept second-guessing herself in those moments, Osaka also appeared to be working through those self-doubts. Her first course of action in this direction was to reclaim the first set before patching up her creaking game in the second set. The latter did happen, but not until midway through it. Once she had sorted out the kinks, Osaka had only six more opponents to go.
The four-time major champion’s struggles in her second-round match against Madison Brengle were contained. Osaka’s chokehold over the clash was firm in the first set. She didn’t let up until the second set, when she began to overplay points to her disadvantage. She went down a break in the set but managed to reset herself tactically and mentally to finish the match on her terms.
To be honest, this isn’t a new quality the 24-year-old has brought to the fore. Think of it as a newer side to a subject she has been constantly whetting against the stone of the audience’s consciousness, i.e., of a tennis player wanting to put herself first.
When Osaka closed the shop in 2021 after losing in the third round of the U.S. Open to eventual finalist Leylah Fernandez, both her words – in their uncertainty – and her actions let everyone know that when, or if, she would return to play tennis competitively, it would be because she chose to do so rather than because the tennis world dictated terms to her. In other words, Naomi Osaka decided that her continued journey in professional tennis would be, effectively, on her terms.
On her terms – this mantra then also seems to be the catalyst spurring Osaka’s “IDGAF” attitude in 2022, beginning at the Melbourne Summer Set 1 where she started the season.
Thus, when seen from a broader perspective, these two matches at Melbourne Park seem like a footnote in the chapter that could be written about Osaka’s professional life. This chapter would focus on retaining her individuality in a sport that, while it prides itself on hosting individuals as its representatives, often fails to value their individualistic fervour.
Interestingly, for Osaka, who is walking on this epiphanous trail, recognising and learning to self-appreciate the worth of her individuality has also meant seeing the value of self-critique in a different light.
“Honestly, I’m trying not to do that. I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I feel like if I compare myself to the past, I’ll never be satisfied. I’m trying to take it one day at a time,” Osaka said in reply to Jim Courier’s question about rating her level in an on-court interview after her win against Brengle.
The Osaka of the years prior would have given an elaborate answer that, while being on-point, would have also sparked tangential offshoots about her years on the tennis tour.
Ironically, here we are, mentioning Naomi Osaka’s experiences on the professional circuit. Yet, although we are, it’s about the narratives that have been set by her, on her terms. The rest are moot.