The challenge of sports is sometimes found in the form of something simple but powerful. “Here is my 100-mile-per-hour fastball, son. I dare you to hit it.”
On other occasions, the difficulty of sports is found in a funky, unusual, convention-dispensing style which is one of a kind. It is unlike anything else witnessed over the course of a season of competition.
Yet, in both cases, those challenges of style and approach in sports are knitted together by this basic notion: One side knows what is coming. That in many ways is the thrill of following sports as a fan or as a commentator: We get to watch athletes try to cope with the problems posed by their opponents.
They intellectually know what they need to do, but can their bodies and minds allow them to achieve the task? This is simultaneously simple and overwhelming, clear yet burdensome.
When athletes know what is coming but are nevertheless flummoxed by their opponents, sports possess this magnificent capacity to reveal what lies inside the heart of the competitor.
Are you hungry enough to fight through these wounds and punches you are taking? Do you have the peace of mind to let that hunger manifest itself, or will your irritation get in the way of what your body is capable of performing? Can your brain reset and go back to an outlook dominated by first principles — which, for the athlete, comes down to a desire to achieve a measure of stability and competence?
Naomi Osaka had to walk over the hot coals of competition on Saturday at the Australian Open. The opponent who turned up the heat — but without throwing fireballs — was Hsieh Su-Wei, the 33-year-old change-up pitcher from Taiwan who disrupts and short-circuits opponents instead of hitting them off the court. The WTA Tour knows that Su-Wei likes to have her Hsieh in her own inimitable style, but that doesn’t stop her from being annoying — I use that word as a rich compliment. She is annoying to play against in a purely tactical sense, one of the best things any athlete can hear about herself.
Hsieh did the voodoo that she knows so well against Osaka, building a set and *4-2, 40-0 lead against the winner of the most recent women’s singles major championship (the 2018 U.S. Open). Osaka was unnerved and unfocused. She was driven batty by the astutely off-pace shots from Hsieh which did not feed Naomi’s strike zone. Hsieh’s diet of change-ups and sliders threw Osaka completely off balance, and the walls of the scoreboard were closing in. Hsieh had three points for 5-2 and a hammer-lock grip on this match.
Let’s put forth another core challenge of sports, a revealer of who knows how to cope in the cauldron of elite competition: When all else collapses, can an athlete bring everything back to the present moment, or as modern spiritual gurus like to call it, the “naked now”? Can athletes strip away all the noise and frustration — and the awareness of a disastrous 75 or 55 or 35 minutes — and achieve total concentration on the next point, nothing else?
At *4-2, 40-0 on Hsieh’s serve, Osaka did just that. She played five letter-perfect points to break back for *3-4. She saved a break point at *3-4 to hold for 4-4.
She lost only one more game the rest of the way.
She is only 21. Osaka still has much to learn, and areas in which she can improve, but for 21, this steely display — made possible by carving out a small pocket of inner calm amid the insanity of the Hsieh Su-Wei Experience — shows the kind of heart which beats inside her.
There will be more ups and downs. There will be more days marked by frustrations and outbursts. (Moreover, for those upset or annoyed by Osaka’s behavior, let’s make one thing clear. The biggest critic of Osaka is herself. She knows she needs to improve. That’s why I and others in the commentariat don’t have to tell her anything.)
Yet, in the face of tumult and turmoil, Naomi Osaka can center herself and strip away the peripheral noise. That is not an easy thing for an athlete to do when getting tormented by a purveyor of paper cuts such as Hsieh Su-Wei.
The “heart of a champion” is a valuable-enough term, but also an overused cliche.
The “calm of a champion” is an underrated aspect of elite competitors in any sport.
Both qualities need to come to the table in moments of crisis. Osaka delivered them, and that’s why she had the final Hsieh in this match.