Anyone who covers sports for a living constantly returns to this basic intersectional question: Was a just-completed competition more of a reflection on the winner or the loser? Sometimes, this question is very difficult to answer, but on Tuesday in Dubai, it was very easy to figure out. Kristina Mladenovic defeated Naomi Osaka, 6-3, 6-3, giving Osaka a loss in her first match as the WTA’s World No. 1 player.
Given that Osaka rose to the stratosphere of women’s tennis over the past several months but then parted with former coach Sascha Bajin in recent weeks, a lot of people will say that this match is more of an indication of how big a mistake Osaka made in managing her career. You know that plenty of people will naturally worry about Osaka’s decision. That is entirely understandable.
The key nuance here is that any coaching transition would likely bring about a measure of distraction or instability if not both. One match, one tournament, and one very new situation do not offer conclusive proof that Osaka chose poorly, or that her 2019 season is in trouble. No. That’s not how this works. Let’s revisit Osaka’s decision after the U.S. Open – then we might be in a position to evaluate where her career is headed.
This loss in Dubai? One match. Calm down. This is not an indication of anything for Osaka. This is a random result under transitional circumstances in a Premier 5 tournament preceding the Indian Wells showcase where Osaka will be defending a lot of points. One could in fact argue that playing very little tennis in Dubai will make Osaka fresher and more prepared to defend her 2018 Indian Wells title.
This is not a crisis. This is not even cause for concern for Osaka. It’s nothing — at least right now.
Recall this recent quote. Remember what Thierry Van Cleemput said after his trial run with Simona Halep in Doha last week:
“She (Halep) had a great run in Doha because of her qualities. If she had played bad, it wouldn’t have been my fault. Just as her playing well wasn’t my merit.”
This week wouldn’t have proved Osaka to be right to change coaches, but it also wasn’t going to be a negative verdict on her decision, either. This is a long-term question. Let’s wait for the summer – if not all of 2019 – to run its course first for Naomi.
The player we should be talking about here is Kiki Mladenovic.
The Frenchwoman has struggled in singles for months, but it should be remembered that last year at Wimbledon, she pushed Serena Williams in two very close sets in the round of 32. She lost, 7-5, 7-6, but left a favorable impression. She certainly has the talent to be a quarterfinal-level player at important tournaments. There is a game waiting to emerge in fuller flower. Mladenovic has been thriving in doubles with Timea Babos. Her net play and variety can make her a very formidable singles player. She obviously encountered a diminished and rusty version of Osaka on Tuesday, but it still requires skill to break Osaka’s serve seven times.
Kiki can play. Let’s see if she can build on this. That’s the relevant conclusion to glean from this match. The Osaka coaching question needs months, if not a full season or more, to be seen for what it is.