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Naomi Osaka bends time

Matt Zemek

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Robert Deutsch - USA TODAY Sports

Was the China Open Premier Mandatory tournament in Beijing a mind-bending event? No. It was, however, a time-bending event for champion Naomi Osaka.

Sunday’s comeback victory by Osaka over Ashleigh Barty — the second comeback Osaka has forged over a top-five player in three days (Bianca Andreescu on Friday) — has left us to contemplate the journey Osaka has made in 2019.

Yes, it is accurate and reasonable to say that Osaka is one of the three best hardcourt players in the world (Andreescu and Serena Williams being the others), and that a lot of what she went through in 2019 can be connected to her comfort levels on various playing surfaces.

Yet, the simple reality of clay and grass being different from hardcourts does not do justice to the more profound process of searching which has marked Osaka’s tennis season.

Technically, the Australian Open was nine months ago. Some of you might think it FEELS like 15 months ago. In many ways, the memory of what happened in Melbourne seems more distant to some members of the tennis community, if only because Naomi Osaka then moved to the background of the WTA Tour for several months.

She split with then-coach Sascha Bajin, right after winning consecutive major championships. She sought happiness — being happy was a result which mattered as much as winning a title. She wanted peace of mind, which is a profoundly personal decision for any athlete. She wanted success on her terms, not success at any cost.

I wrote on the Osaka-Bajin divorce. I made it clear that I was not critical of the move, though it obviously raised eyebrows. I made the simple point that Osaka had to decide for herself what she wanted.

Almost all of us have a job or had a job at one point. (Maybe one of us won the lottery at an early age or inherited family wealth and never had to work a 9-to-5 job for a living.) If you have been an employee at a company, chances are you have been exposed to good work situations and bad ones.

If you have worked for other employers for several years — or at least, long enough to see a wide range of circumstances and work environments — you appreciate the value of a good work situation over a bad one.

The bad situation might involve more pay, but there comes a point at which the added money isn’t worth the added stress, the added friction, the added headaches and uncertainties of a particular environment.

Yes, Osaka pulled down a seven-figure paycheck for winning both the 2018 U.S. Open and 2019 Australian Open, but she wasn’t happy.

Something was more important than the results themselves.

She sought happiness more than a trophy. She preferred both together, instead of the trophy alone.

She worked with Jermaine Jenkins as her coach for several months. She showed signs of improving when she returned to hardcourts and made the Cincinnati quarterfinals, but then she got injured. Her lack of complete mobility affected her in her U.S. Open loss to Belinda Bencic.

Osaka decided that was the time to part with Jenkins (on much more benign terms than Bajin) and accept short-term coaching from her father, Leonard Francois, before seeking a new coach for the 2020 season.

The biggest reason Osaka won Beijing by defeating Barty and Andreescu is that her defensive mobility was top-notch. The wrapping near her knee at the U.S. Open was gone; so was the inconsistency which marked the middle months of her tennis season.

Yet, close behind her improved mobility and health, a more settled off-court life gave Osaka the clarity to recharge her batteries and bookend her 2019 season with another big hardcourt title.

She wasn’t having fun in Australia, even as she battled to that championship in Melbourne. Now, she has bagged another high-end title nine months later in Beijing.

Tennis observers and fans might feel that the journey was a lot longer than nine months, given how many twists and turns Osaka has packed into that period of time. Two coaching changes in nine months are hardly unheard of on tour. Sloane Stephens and Monica Puig, among others, have endured multiple coaching changes this year.

Nevertheless, it is hard to avoid the reality that while multiple coaching changes in a season are part of life for a number of tennis players, one doesn’t commonly witness that level of churn and turnover for a player who won two consecutive major tournaments and had risen to World No. 1.

Osaka’s ability to win her second major tournament immediately after her first major title is uncommon. Her coaching changes were uncommon — not in general, but for a player in her specific position.

Now, Osaka’s wilderness journey — if not ended — has at least been interrupted with this emergence after the U.S. Open.

This isn’t a mind-bending journey, given how skilled and capable Osaka is on a hardcourt tennis rectangle.

It is, rather, a time-bending journey for a player whose greatest successes were not really all that distant in truth… but felt remote to many.

Now, they don’t feel remote at all.

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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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