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Rescue Tennis

Matt Zemek

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Jimmie 48 Photography

Great champions are defined by many characteristics, but near the very top of the list is this trait: They rescue themselves. Naomi Osaka keeps showing that she is thoroughly able to do precisely that.

It is true that if a player is constantly trying to rescue herself (or himself), always playing from behind, that kind of pattern will eventually end in disappointment. The ability to rescue oneself is not a tournament-long characteristic for great tennis players — not generally. What is more specifically being described here is the ability to rescue oneself on a day when the shots aren’t flowing off the racquet, or the opponent is playing extremely well, or a combination of both.

Can a tennis player fight through a bad convergence of circumstances and live to play another day? Today might be miserable, but tomorrow can be beautiful, smooth and easy. Getting through “today” — when today is a beast and a burden — is a champion’s task in tennis, given its single-elimination reality.

The Golden State Warriors might lose a few games in an NBA playoff series, but losing on one night doesn’t eliminate them. The challenge of beating the Warriors is to beat them four times in seven games. Tennis is so much more inherently fragile when compared to the NBA because only one loss on one afternoon will scuttle a major tournament and its grand plans. Only one bad day turns championship dreams into rubble.

Being able to rescue oneself — and create a new tomorrow — is a champion’s challenge.

Osaka, though just 21 and having endured a coaching change (of her own choosing), keeps displaying the ability to rescue herself.

She did this at the 2018 U.S. Open against a determined and in-form version of Aryna Sabalenka.

She did this at the 2019 Australian Open against Hsieh Su-Wei, down a set and 4-2 and facing three points for a 2-5 deficit.

Thursday, she did this again, and this time, she did so against a two-time major champion.

Osaka watched Victoria Azarenka excel for a set and a half. She trailed a set and 4-2 and was staring at the exit door.

What do you do? What do you have to offer in THESE moments, when a talented and motivated opponent is thriving, you are on your least favorite surface, and you just came off a first-round match in which you survived after being two points from defeat?

Can you regroup — not just in terms of clarity, but hunger; not just in terms of aggression, but patience; not just in terms of energy, but relaxation?

It is hard to put all these pieces together. This is why legendary tennis players are rare. Not everyone can do this stuff. It isn’t supposed to be easy.

Osaka keeps doing it.

This was hardly a match Azarenka lost hold of; this was a match in which Osaka brought her best stuff to the table when she had to deliver it. Azarenka has lost so many of these kinds of matches in recent years that it is easy to put the blame at her feet, but tennis — you might remember — is always a dialogue between two people.

Osaka simply spoke more eloquently and authoritatively after being down a set and 4-2.

Does this result mean Osaka is home free? Hardly. Does this mean she is now the favorite to win Roland Garros? No.

Yet, we can all acknowledge that if Osaka does make a deep run in Paris, this is the match which — even more than her win over Anna Karolina Schmiedlova — made such a run possible.

This brings us to the final point of this piece: Osaka rescues herself and then makes the most out of those rescues.

She played a lot better after the Sabalenka match.

She played a lot better after the Hsieh match — she wobbled somewhat against Anastasija Sevastova but then brought her A-game in the latter rounds of that Australian Open and winning high-level matches against Karolina Pliskova and Petra Kvitova.

Osaka can’t expect to rescue herself in every match — that’s not a sustainable way to win big tournaments — but she does rescue herself when she has to.

For a young player, the ability to regularly lift herself out of trouble is a central manifestation of a player who is ready to claim greatness on a large scale.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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