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Naomi Osaka is still figuring it out


2019 has not been the same joy-filled whirlwind for Naomi Osaka that 2018 was.

After winning the Australian Open in January, the world No. 1 had an icy split with her coach Sascha Bajin, and spent the first half of the year crashing out of tournaments well-before she was expected to. She has reached the semis of just one tournament this year which was underscored by her first-round exit at Wimbledon.

On Monday, the 22-year-old was bounced from the U.S. Open in the fourth round by No. 13 Seed Belinda Bencic — the loss will cost Osaka her No. 1 ranking, which will go to Ash Barty after the Open. This was partly due to her knee hindering her mobility. And it was partly because Bencic looked like every part the player that had beaten Osaka in their two previous matches this year, and who has more wins over Top 5 and Top 10 opponents than anyone else on tour in 2019.

But it was also because Osaka is, by her own admission, “still figuring it out.”

In August, she let some raw feelings out on Twitter, and revealed that she hadn’t had fun on a tennis court since the Aussie.

This wouldn’t be the first time someone from the women’s side of the game unexpectedly ran into a motivation-killing brick wall. Former Slam winners Ana Ivanovic, Caroline Wozniacki and Garbine Muguruza can all speak to that.

But Osaka is also showing signs in Flushing Meadows this week that she isn’t ready to go anywhere quite yet. In fact, it seems like she’s trying to lay down a foundation to help free her from the burden and pressure of expectation, and help give her the motivation that she needs to stay on top over the long haul.

After her thorough dismantling of teen sensation Coco Gauff on Saturday, Osaka confessed after the match that the prospect of facing Gauff had her more focused than she’d been at any point since the Australian Open.

Talking after the loss Monday, Osaka admitted to a feeling of sadness over losing in the fourth round, but she said that she is “more chill now,” and seemed to have found a silver lining that was not present in her losses at Roland Garros or Wimbledon.

“I feel like I grew. I don’t feel like I put so much weight on one single match,” she explained. “Of course to a certain extent I do, but I think I want to see that I played better matches through the summer. Because I feel like definitely the tournament I played here has been the best one so far.”

Naomi Osaka is still trying to 'figure it out.' (Andrew Schwartz for New York Daily News)
Naomi Osaka is still trying to 'figure it out.' (Andrew Schwartz for New York Daily News) (Andrew Schwartz/For New York Daily News)

Throughout the interview she referenced her growth and maturation over the course of the summer, even cracking a joke about walking out on her interview after her Wimbledon loss. But she’s also remembering that she has to have fun.

“Lessons that I’ve learned? I guess not to take myself so seriously,” she stated matter-of-factly. "That would be the biggest one.”

This was no more evident than the end of the second set against Bencic. Down a set and a break, Osaka put her face in her towel and looked like she wanted to disappear. But after having to think about it, she flashed a smile, seemingly remembering to heed that aforementioned life lesson.

She seemed one step closer to figuring it out and getting back to enjoying her tennis.