On Sunday, shortly after Naomi Osaka won the premier, mandatory tournament in Beijing (it’s the last top-tier, regular tour event of the year), she told the WTA podcast that she knew exactly what she wanted to accomplish during the fall Asian swing, declaring: “I had a clear, specific plan of what I wanted to do.”
Asked to elaborate on her “plan,” she said, “In my head, I was chanting ‘I will dominate.'”
It’s quite a plan. Simple. Effective. Airtight. It was conceived in the wake of perhaps the most painful loss in a year full of them for Osaka. As the defending champion at the US Open, she was beaten in straight sets in the fourth round by Belinda Bencic. In the wake of that defeat, she decided that her goal was to run the table for the rest of 2019, winning all three events she planned to play: Osaka, Beijing, Shenzhen (the WTA Finals).
Many might have scoffed at the goal a month ago, but Osaka is now two-thirds of the way there. It’s a noteworthy reversal for the 21-year-old, who said of her result back at Flushing Meadows in September: “Right now I have this feeling of sadness, But I also feel like I have learned so much during this tournament. … I feel like the steps that I have taken as a person have been much greater than I would imagine at this point. So I hope that I can keep growing. I know that if I keep working hard, then of course I’ll have better results.”
At the time, it sounded like an attempt by Osaka to salvage something — life lessons? — from the wreckage of a frustrating year.
Osaka rallies from set down to top Barty for title
Naomi Osaka shows maturity and poise in US Open loss
Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff teach a lesson in humility and sportsmanship
Osaka earned the No. 1 ranking with her win at the Australian Open. But from that point until the beginning of the current Asian swing, she surrendered the top ranking, won no titles and compiled a record of 20-12. Her record in the three majors after she won Australia: 5-3. By the fall, it was easy to overlook the glowing ember of determination buried in the ashes of Osaka’s year of “growth.”
Osaka has been on fire since she arrived in her hometown a few weeks ago. She ripped through that Osaka draw without losing a set. Her momentum carried over to Beijing, where she lost a mere 15 games in a tournament that culminated with a masterful win in the final over No. 1 Ashleigh Barty.
Elina Svitolina is the only top-five player scheduled to play another event as the season winds down. The net result of this late-season surge by Osaka is that the prestigious year-end No. 1 ranking is back in play. Should she manage to lock that down, it will represent a startling rebound ending to a wild single-year journey unlike any other in recent tennis history.
Osaka’s adventures in 2019 are starting to read like a coming-of-age tale compressed into a 12-month span, awaiting only a happy ending. She won legions of hearts when she was cheated out of the joy she should have felt upon beating Serena Williams in the controversy-plagued US Open final of 2018. Osaka declared that her breakthrough major title was no fluke by winning the very next slam, the 2019 Australian Open.
The wheels began to wobble almost immediately. Shortly after her win in Melbourne, Osaka dismissed her coach, Sascha Bajin. The German coach had shepherded her from No. 72 in the world at the start of 2018 to No. 1 in the span of 12 months, but he lost Osaka somewhere along the way. She told the WTA website, “This is my life. I’m not going to sacrifice that just to keep a person around if I’m not waking up every day happy to practice and happy to be around [him].”
ESPN analyst Pam Shriver traces the dismissal of Bajin as the source of Osaka’s travails. She told ESPN.com: “I felt since the Australian Open that Osaka is unsettled, partly because of that coaching change. She was somewhat unhappy, and then later she was not always healthy enough to play her power game to her top ability.”