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The Osaka Paradox

Naomi Osaka lost another match on clay on Sunday. That’s not new, and it certainly isn’t surprising. Is there anything new we can learn or glean or understand from this?

It’s a worn-out subject, I know, but there is a simple point to make. You might have already heard it, but maybe you haven’t, or at least, not with a specific point of emphasis: The predictability of Osaka’s struggles on clay is the antithesis of the reality of the WTA Tour in a post-Barty, non-Iga Swiatek context.

Barty’s 2021 dominance of the tour, carried into Melbourne, followed by Swiatek’s roaring start to 2022, has established those players as uniquely reliable in women’s tennis. Everywhere else, matches and draws seem to be coin flips right now.

Look at the Madrid WTA bracket after the first Sunday of the tournament: Paula Badosa, Aryna Sabalenka, Maria Sakkari, Karolina Pliskova, Danielle Collins, and Garbine Muguruza — the Nos. 2 through 7 seeds — are all out. Ons Jabeur, seeded eighth, is the highest seed left. Badosa, Sakkari, and Muguruza in particular are accomplished clay-court players, so you can’t say their losses were either expected or surface-based. Those results contained an element of intrigue.

Osaka’s loss had very little intrigue as soon as Sara Sorribes Tormo took a 4-2 lead in the first set.

In a vast red-brick courtyard of chaos, Osaka’s losses on European clay are as routine as they come. That one note provides a context in which these struggles can be more clearly seen for what they are.

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