MELBOURNE, Australia — Upset again in the third round by a young unseeded talent on the rise, Naomi Osaka was in a different mood and better place at this Grand Slam tournament.
In September, after her three-set loss to Leylah Fernandez at the U.S. Open, Osaka was downcast, confused and in need of an extended break from the game to rekindle her passion for tennis.
Late Friday night in Melbourne, after her three-set loss to Amanda Anisimova at the Australian Open, Osaka was disappointed but eager to see the bright side and look ahead to a full season.
“I fought for every point; I can’t be sad about that,” Osaka said. “You know, like I’m not God. I can’t win every match, you know. So I just have to take that into account and know that it would be nice to win the tournament, but that’s, like, really special.”
Osaka, 24, knows that feeling well. She has won four Grand Slam singles titles, two of them at the Australian Open and was the defending champion in Melbourne. But after nearly four months away from competition, she was seeded just 13th this year. Though she was unable to summon plenty of power and desire on Friday, she was unable to close the deal against Anisimova, a 20-year-old American who has long been considered one of the most promising players in the game.
In women’s tennis — brimming with depth and fearless youth — no established star is truly safe. The 60th-ranked Anisimova proved it again by matching the powerful Osaka groundstroke for groundstroke in Margaret Court Arena, with the crowd often chanting “Amanda” to urge her on.
It was her first match against Osaka, and Anisimova did not flinch: prevailing in three tense sets 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (10-5), and saving two match points on her serve in the final set.
“I think it was the hardest in the first set to be honest; I was just trying to step up my game, and I think that’s why my nerves were kicking in a little bit,” Anisimova said in an interview with The New York Times. “Because I knew that I had to really dig deep and just try to be more aggressive to give myself a chance to win today. But in the third set, I was not really nervous at all anymore. I love playing in these high-pressure moments, and I think it’s really fun to play in Melbourne in front of a crowd like that. So I was just trying to enjoy every moment really. I kept reminding myself, ‘I’m at a Grand Slam playing against Naomi Osaka, just try to enjoy it, because it’ll be over soon.’”
A semifinalist at the French Open at age 17 in 2019, Anisimova, the daughter of Russian immigrants to the United States, looked ready to play a leading role in the game consistently in her teens, but that was before her father and longtime coach, Konstantin, died after a heart attack in August 2019, shortly before the U.S. Open.
Anisimova withdrew from the tournament and returned to the tour later that year but has often struggled with her emotions and consistency in matches since then.
“I think definitely that’s the reason why I had a couple tough years playing tennis,” Anisimova said of her father’s death. “I think when I got back to it a couple months after what happened, I think I was just trying to ignore and push it away and just telling everybody that everything was fine. And I think it really wasn’t, and I didn’t take enough time for myself to really just try and recover from that and just take enough time for myself before I’m ready to go out on court.
“Because I feel like everyone wanted me to go on court, and I don’t know if I was fully there for that period. Now that I look back at it, I think I’m starting to realize things and I see a lot clearer this year. I think I’ve grown a lot since then. It was just a very confusing time for me after that, and it was very long too. And I was just kind of lost.”
For different reasons, Osaka has felt lost, as well. After winning the title again in Melbourne last year, she looked set to dominate the sport, at least on the hardcourts that suit her style best. But her game began to unravel in the early spring, and a confrontation with French Open officials over her refusal to appear at mandatory postmatch news conferences led her to withdraw from the tournament. Afterward, she went public with her yearslong battle with depression, took two months off, then returned at the Tokyo Olympics, where she lit the torch but lost in the third round amid relentless pressure to excel.
On her return to the circuit in August, she broke down in tears at a remote news conference and briefly left the room before returning. At the U.S. Open, after her loss to Fernandez, she admitted that she was no longer finding enjoyment in the sport, even after victories.
Since then, said she has been experimenting with meditation and writing in a journal.
“Trying to figure out what my goals are and what I want to accomplish in this career, she said. “Because I’m here right now at the Australian Open, but you never know when it’s going to be your last one.”
Osaka said she did not want to take playing on the biggest show courts for granted. “I just feel like I have to shift my mentality more, and of course be more grateful for the things that I have accomplished and the things that I want to accomplish,” she said.
Osaka returned to competition earlier this month and though she acknowledged that her game is a work in progress, she also made it plain that Anisimova’s power and style played a major role in Friday’s result. The American had 46 winners to Osaka’s 21 and one fewer unforced error (44 to 45). Osaka said she had been surprised by the flat pace of Anisimova’s shots, above all her returns.
“I almost felt like I was fighting for my life out there in some games,” Osaka said. “I honestly also thought that I won certain games just based on sheer willpower.”
She could not win the game that mattered most, however. With Anisimova serving at 4-5 in the third set, Osaka secured two match points and failed to convert either, missing backhands on both occasions. Anisimova held serve with an ace and then served another ace to hold serve and force a tiebreaker.
She took a quick 3-0 lead and then took command again when Osaka narrowed her lead to 5-4, winning a series of full-cut baseline rallies. Two points from victory, she finished off the upset with a cocksure forehand swing volley and one last ace: her 11th of the match.
Anisimova dropped her racket and covered her face with both hands before looking at her team, which includes, for now, the veteran coach Darren Cahill, an Australian who guided Simona Halep to the No. 1 ranking and agreed to help Anisimova at her request for the Australian swing. It has been a resounding success so far with Anisimova winning the title at a lead-in tournament in Melbourne and now reaching the fourth round at the Australian Open.
“Yesterday I was kind of stressing myself out a little bit, trying to play perfect,” she said of Cahill. “He intervenes in those moments and tells me, just relax, and play the game that I know.”
Anisimova’s victory broke up the most anticipated match of the tournament, a potential fourth-round duel between Osaka and the world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty of Australia. Now Anisimova will face Barty, who has yet to drop a set and defeated No. 30 seed Camila Giorgi 6-2, 6-3, on Friday.
At the 2019 French Open, Anisimova overcame a 1-5 deficit to win the first set against Barty in the semifinals and took a 3-0 lead in the second set before Barty rallied to win in three sets and then win the title, her first in singles at a Grand Slam tournament.
But much has changed for Anisimova since then, and she said she had been inspired by Osaka’s openness about her mental-health issues.
“Just to spread awareness and try to get rid of the stigma around mental health,” Anisimova said. “I think that we’re in a completely different time now. This generation is becoming more honest about all these kinds of things. I think it’s great to see. I’m comfortable speaking about whatever, you know. I’ve gone through a couple of hard years, and I don’t mind posting stuff on social media and just try to spread awareness for people who are also going through tough things.”
Late on Friday night in Melbourne, there was only good news: a world apart from a year ago when she was still reeling from her father’s death and missed the Australian Open altogether after testing positive for the coronavirus.
“I wouldn’t say that I wish that I went through those things, or I’m grateful that I went through those things because they’re very hard,” Anisimova said. “But they are things that have gotten me where I am today. And yeah, they’ve made me strong.”