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Osaka on grass, part two: thin blades, thin windows

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

When trying to understand why Naomi Osaka — the magnificent champion of the two hardcourt majors — is so noticeably uneasy on grass, many talking points can be brought to the discussion table.

I will focus on this specific part of a much larger conversation: Grass, which used to be the surface on which tennis players played most of the time (at the big tournaments, at least), is now the surface on which professionals spend the least amount of time.

In 1974, three of the four majors were played on grass. Through 1987, at least two majors were played on grass. If you whiffed at one grass major, you got another bite at the apple later in the season. There was a chance to circle back and problem solve, to correct flaws or — more generally — polish one’s strokes and technique while also developing tactics more suitable for lawn tennis.

Today, players don’t have that same spaciousness and that same abundance of opportunity. A few elite WTA players might play three grass tournaments per year, all in the short burst of grass activity which follows Roland Garros. Many WTA stars will play only two tournaments, one warm-up event and then Wimbledon. Most ATP elites play two tournaments — Queens or Halle and then Wimbledon — and a few ATP stars will play The Boodles (exhibition) and then to go the Big W for their only live grass tournament on the calendar.

Yes, great tennis players generally figure out in the course of their careers how to play well at Wimbledon.

Yes, great tennis players generally figure out how to play well on all surfaces.

Yes, Naomi Osaka’s serve and reach and defense and court coverage should all translate well to grass, and simply haven’t done so.

Yet, we know from experience that if you haven’t embraced the unique challenges of a specific surface, and/or if you haven’t yet tasted considerable success on a surface, the act of playing on that surface — even though it is just as much a tennis match as it would be anywhere else — can be a thorny thicket.

It is weird, but it is part of sports, in much the same way that a baseball pitcher is incredibly good on the road but mediocre when pitching in his home ballpark… or in the way that a basketball player shoots extremely well in his home arena and terribly on the road. These things happen and will continue to happen.

The reminder on grass: If you don’t figure out one year’s grass season in modern times, you have to wait 11 months for the next go-round in live tournament play. If you want to practice on a grass court, that will very likely cut into preparations for important hardcourt or clay tournaments, unless you want to practice in November… and after a long season, that idea might not be recommended, since taking downtime is also part of the holistic management an athlete needs in order to produce sustained quality.

One final note about Osaka on grass, as this brief two-part examination concludes: This is not Karolina Pliskova.

More precisely, Osaka is not someone who has arrived at age 27 with a long track record of grass shortcomings. It is not too early to say that she struggles on grass and needs to find a comfort zone on the surface, but it is definitely way too early to say that she won’t turn the corner or that these current failures are unacceptable.

Grass season comes and goes in the blink of an eye. Naomi Osaka knows that grass opportunities are fleeting within the course of individual seasons… which might be why she puts added pressure on herself and doesn’t find the kinds of responses she summons on hardcourts (and even clay to a degree, as shown against Victoria Azarenka at Roland Garros).

Yet, while opportunities within one tennis season might be limited, opportunities in a larger career-long sense are abundant.

Do we really think Osaka WON’T figure this out in due time? I would bet that she will find solutions.

That point aside, let’s not make this out to be too big a deal right now.

If we are still having this conversation in 2022, sure… but we can wait, right?

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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