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Naomi Osaka quietly strengthened herself

Matt Zemek

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John E. Sokolowski -- USA TODAY Sports

Naomi Osaka didn’t end her 2019 season the way she wanted. To be honest, hardly anyone at the WTA Finals in Shenzhen ended her season in an ideal way. Players either retired, and/or had to be replaced with alternates, and/or got worn down to the point of needing a medical timeout at some point during a one-week event with matches played every other day.

The WTA Finals provided carnage and paltry midweek crowds more than anything else. They certainly didn’t offer any loud or revealing statements about the quality of various WTA players measured against each other.

Tell me: What was the big revelation about Bianca Andreescu’s tennis from this tournament? Not her fitness, but her tennis? If you can come up with an answer, more power to you, but I know I don’t have an answer.

Simona Halep? Did we learn or see anything new for the Romanian?

Belinda Bencic took a medical timeout in her first match and retired in her last one.

Kiki Bertens fell ill.

Naomi Osaka was not exempt from this list of hardships. She also had her WTA Finals plans ruined not by anything related to how she hit a tennis ball, but by the attritional avalanche which rolled through Shenzhen.

Tennis, sad to say, wasn’t the centerpiece of the week. Injuries and health concerns occupied the main spotlight. Osaka didn’t get what she wanted; only the finalists did. Ashleigh Barty and Elina Svitolina made their way through the week without getting hurt and without feeling they left something on the table.

However, if we can look beyond the WTA Finals and see a broader picture, Naomi Osaka quietly built back not only her game, but her hardcourt identity, as the 2019 season came to an end.

No, she didn’t win the U.S. Open (she was hurt). She didn’t win the WTA Finals. Yet, her Beijing championship and her victory over Bianca Andreescu, stopping the Canadian’s lengthy hardcourt winning streak, represented twin statements of her regained relevance on tour.

Osaka didn’t generate banner headlines from that advancement. Only majors or year-end championships do that, for the most part. Yet, her progress after a brutal clay-and-grass season was clear, if not spectacular. That has to be noted.

Osaka can say — convincingly — that by the time the 2019 season ended, she had restored her game. Given that she did so against the backdrop of an uncertain coaching situation, Osaka ought to feel that she can play tennis with less worry and doubt in 2020.

If she can turn that possibility into a lived-out reality next year, she will be the player everyone else (including Andreescu) chases for year-end No. 1.

Naomi Osaka wasn’t allowed — due to injury — to become the showcase player at the 2019 WTA Finals. That was unfortunate. However, Osaka is a stronger tennis player than she was back in February. This is her main source of hope heading into a new calendar decade she hopes to conquer more than anyone else on the WTA Tour.

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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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