‘I find that it’s fun for me:’ Even in defeat, Naomi Osaka has found her joy in tennis

Standing on the court as her ever-so-slight lead slipped away and now just one point away from entering a third-set tiebreak, Naomi Osaka prepared for Amanda Anisimova‘s next serve during their third-round match at the Australian Open on Friday.

Osaka, the tournament’s defending champ, had looked frustrated as she walked back to the baseline — shrugging her shoulders and gesturing wildly — but then she laughed.

She ended up losing the point — and the match moments later — but she found something far more important during her time Down Under:

Her love for the sport.

And even after having blown two match points in the 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5) loss and with her ranking in a freefall, Osaka was still able to appreciate the moment, and the defeat itself.

“I fought for every point,” Osaka said after the match. “I can’t be sad about that. You know, I’m not God, I can’t win every match. 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. I can’t win the Grand Slam at the start of the year every time.

“For me, I feel like I grew a lot in this match. The last match that I played [at the U.S. Open] I think I had a completely different attitude, so I’m really happy with — you know, of course I lost, but I’m happy with how it went.”

It’s been a long journey to rediscover the joy of playing tennis for the 24-year-old Osaka.

The 2021 season didn’t go as planned for her. She opened the year with the title at the Australian Open, her fourth major victory, but found herself in the middle of a media firestorm after she publicly stated she wouldn’t be speaking to reporters at the French Open. She ultimately withdrew from the tournament ahead of her second-round match and returned to her home in Los Angeles. Osaka then skipped Wimbledon to take “some personal time with friends and family.”

Osaka lit the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony in Tokyo, but wasn’t able to follow up the high-profile honor on the court, falling in the third round. As the defending champion at the US Open, she struggled against Leylah Fernandez in the Round of 32, and couldn’t hide her devastation. She threw her racket, hit a ball into the stands and left the court after the second set with a towel draped over her head. Fernandez won the match, and Osaka later told reporters, “I don’t feel happy.”

“Basically I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match. I think I’m going to take a break from playing for a while,” Osaka said through tears before the press conference abruptly ended.

The weekly grind of the globetrotting schedule and the pressure of being the heir apparent to Serena Williams‘ throne as the world’s best tennis player had perhaps been too much to handle, and the attention was simply too overwhelming. No one knew when Osaka would play next — or ever again.

So when she posted a picture of herself smiling on Rod Laver Arena at the end of December on Instagram, it was a welcome sight to tennis fans. That smile hasn’t faded much since — whether she’s winning points or otherwise.

During the first set of her opening-round match against Camila Osorio, Osaka whiffed on what should have been an easy return. As she swung her racket over her head, and the ball sailed right over, she turned around to stare at the ball as it bounced, and then she put her hand on her chest and laughed.

It was a simple mistake, and she treated it as such. After the match, Osaka was asked about the moment and if her reaction to it was a sign of her new positive attitude.

“For me, I came back when I wanted to come back,” Osaka said. “I just felt like there are situations where I previously would get upset. But at this point in my life, like, I’m here because I want to be here and because I find that it’s fun for me. Might as well enjoy it while I still can.”

She admitted it still wouldn’t have been her immediate natural reaction.

“It’s not an automatic thing to laugh about it,” she said. “I’m trying to change my mindset.”

That adjustment has been on display — in good moments and bad — throughout her time in Melbourne, and those connected to the game have noticed.

“What has stood out to me so far is that she looks more prepared than she was at the US Open and her attitude,” Pam Shriver, the 21-time major doubles champion and ESPN analyst, said ahead of her match against Anisimova. “There have been a few moments so far this tournament in which she might have gotten embarrassed or frustrated previously but now she’s able to shake it off and just focus on the next point.”

Of course, it’s easy to be upbeat in victory, but Osaka didn’t waver in defeat. She warmly congratulated Anisimova at the net and walked into her news conference with a smile. She called the match “pretty high-level” and “fun” before she even fielded a single question.

She later credited writing in a journal and “meditating-ish” for helping her gain perspective.

“[I’ve been] trying to figure out what my goals are and what I want to accomplish in this career 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. “Playing in Rod Laver every time is something that I don’t want to take for granted. Playing in the big stadiums is really special. 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.”

A win on Friday would have set up an eagerly anticipated fourth-round blockbuster showdown against world No. 1, and beloved local favorite, Ash Barty. Many were excited to see two of the best in the game finally have an opportunity to go head-to-head with the stakes so high. But instead Barty will face Anisimova, and Osaka will head back home empty-handed and with her ranking expected to plummet into the 80s.

But a relaxed, still-smiling, Osaka insisted she was grateful for the experience, and believes it will ultimately help her during the rest of the season.

“I just want to go into this year knowing that I’ll play the whole year and I’ll just have the greatest attitude ever,” she said. “You know, like, I’ll fight for every point. Even if I win or lose, I’ll just go off the court knowing that I tried the hardest that I could, and there is no way that anyone can expect anything more from me, because they saw how hard I fought.

“So of course that’s the goal, and I think if I keep that mentality, I’ll be able to win more matches. Of course there are going to be moments like this where I’m disappointed, but I feel like the losses is what I learn the most from.”

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