By Jane Voigt
Daniel Island, S.C., April 4, 2018 — Naomi Osaka didn’t get much attention during last year’s Volvo Car Open. This year she’s in the crosshairs. But as much as her rise in the rankings and her first-ever title from Indian Wells precede her, Osaka is still a study on clay.
“Well in 2016 I would have said it was good because I did okay at the French,” Osaka said yesterday, when asked how she was on clay. “Last year I wouldn’t say that. I literally don’t think I won any matches on clay except for here. And this year I’m just trying to like start new and be ready for the longer points and stuff, and yeah, just to enjoy it.”
Naomi Osaka’s Clay-court Results, 2017
Charleston — lost in third round to Shelby Rogers
Stuttgart — won 3 rounds of qualification, then lost first round to Johanna Konta.
Rome — lost first round to Laura Siegemund
Strasbourg — lost first round to Carla Suarez Navarro
Roland Garros — lost first round to Qualifier Alison Van Uytvanck
Today the number ten seed fought past Laura Siegemund, last year’s Volvo Car Open semifinalist, 6-4, 7-6(8). At least the 20-year-old avenged her loss to the German from the first round at Rome last year. But the match was tough. Siegemund is a tricky player with a wicked slice backhand, an unnerving way of disguising her shots and a frequent user of drop shots.
“I would say just being prepared for anything that could happen,” Osaka said about Siegemund’s style. “Like if she’s hitting a forehand, she might hit it cross court. She might hit it down the line. She might hit a drop shot. I don’t know. Her backhand, too, she really hits a good backhand down the line … so just be prepared for anything that could happen.”
For as lighthearted, funny and shy she appears Osaka puts pressure on herself.
“I always expect a lot,” Osaka said.
During the second set she went through a range of emotions that displeased her, some attributable to her recent tournament schedule. She’s played more of them this year than last.
“I actually don’t think I was composed at all in the second set,” she said. “I feel like my emotions were going everywhere at once. I was just really upset at myself because I always set out with an image of how I want to play and what I’m going to do to play like that. But this match didn’t go that way.”
Reverting back to teen-age tactics, remembering that Osaka is 20, she took time between points in that set after Siegemund had thrown in her own stall tactic.
“And as for the taking time thing I only took time after she took time because I was really salty,” she said. “That was kind of [a] child issue on my part. I mean it worked out in the end. Hopefully I won’t have to do that again.”
If the match had gone to three, all bets would’ve been off. Siegemund had several set points, during the tiebreak. If it wasn’t for Osaka’s serve, which is one of her assets, the match might have gone the distance. “Honestly I think I only won the second set because it went to a tiebreak,” Osaka concluded.
Mental exhaustion can throw off any player, no matter their rank. But Osaka’s career is in its nascence and adjustments to clay or hard or grass courts could be the least of her worries.
“I was just a little bit stressed out, and I feel like these past [weeks] since Indian Wells everything has gone by so fast,” she began. “For sure I’ve played more matches this year than last year at this point. And like I want to take a break, but I also want to keep playing these tournaments and do well. So just balancing, that has been the hardest for me.”
Nonetheless Osaka has matured on clay. She saved game points with her serve, during the opening game. She admitted that it pulled her through the tiebreak. And her rise in rankings — from 68 at the end of 2017 to her current 21 — reflects strong performances.
“Probably not,” she began, when asked if she would’ve won today’s second set last year. “I don’t think I would have felt the confidence that I feel right now. So last year I probably would have made some mistakes in important times, which I didn’t do this time.”
Julia Georges, the tournament fifth seed, is next for Osaka.
“Well I’ve practiced with her in Wimbledon last year and she’s really good, like she has a really good serve,” she began. “If she steps the points over. So I’m just really thinking of it as a challenge, and I’m just going to have a really positive mindset.”