by Sharada Rajagopalan
It took Naomi Osaka a few years on the tour to build up her professional resume, with the biggest titles and rankings. The fall was much quicker – building up within months – with various reasons spouted to rationalise her sudden loss of form. No matter what was being speculated, it was not until Osaka clarified what had not been working for her that the matter became clear. Not just about her career alone but also of other fellow youngsters on the professional tennis tour.
“The last few months for me have been really rough tennis wise… I can honestly reflect and say I probably haven’t had fun playing tennis since Australia and I’m finally coming to terms with that while relearning that fun feeling…” Osaka shared in a Twitter post. Though the entirety of the 21-year-old’s post stood out, the portion in which she spoke about “not having fun” stood out sharply than the rest.
Going back to her matches after the Australian Open, it became obvious to what she was referring. After the US Open, making her way into the new season as the most in-form player, alongside her results, expectations boomed. And, direct proportional to these expectations, pressure also rose on her to justify these – as though, these were of her making.
When Osaka won the Australian Open, she seemed to have found a way to negate both while fulfilling her potential. The way things have turned out, it now feels as though Osaka only – albeit successfully – masked the circumstantial despondency. Articulating the same now, is her attempt of coping with it while subtly putting out an advisory that she needs her space to re-find herself.
Borrowing from what Osaka wrote, a case for leaving a player alone can be made for other such players who are considered as the successors on the professional tour. Among the men, the scenario has been pushed to its zenith with touting such as “NextGen” forcibly nudging the idea that the present is all about the future. As youngster after youngster stumbles along the road, the idea of present – older players – being dominant versus a future that has letdown the sport in its uncertainty is also being polished in its reiteration.
In contrast, the WTA lot, especially the youngsters evade such deeply-poring intensity until obliviousness is not an option. That is, while talent abounds among the juniors, somehow or the other, the men’s action takes more precedence shoving the women into the shadows. That, however, is a debate of men’s tour vis-à-vis the women’s remains a topic to be discussed at some later, finite point. Yet, this existing chasm between the reception of the men’s and women’s game helps the younger WTA players focus on developing their game and make their way upwards, literally, through the ranks.
Once they step into the tour events and the world at large cottons on to their aptitude, and paean-like articles are sung about them being the proverbial future that is when reality enters the fray, disrupting years’ worth of carefully-nurtured concentration. Be it Osaka, or be it Jelena Ostapenko, or even Ashleigh Barty to name a few.
In case of the Australian, praises about her finding her place among the major champions do make it a point to include how she took a sabbatical from tennis to play cricket. Barty, too, has credited how cricket helped center her. The 23-year-old’s confessions aside, these narratives do not talk about how Barty moved on to play a team sport that does not receive much attention (if any, at all) from non-Commonwealth countries. If she needed to regroup, the 11-player game gave her as much of an opportunity to be connected with the sports’ world as much as there was a gulf separating her from expectations.
More than her win on a surface that was always thought to be non-conducive to her playing style, Barty’s winning a singles major at the French Open when everyone’s usual picks fell off the draw sheet was the bigger surprise. As if it were a given offshoot, it was also not surprising that Barty’s Roland Garros title led to chants of her winning Wimbledon.
This externally-driven pipe dream may have been extinguished for Barty. But onlookers latched on to another player to fuel their aspirations – in 16-year-old Coco Gauff. It also became convenient to do so since she defeated 38-year-old Venus Williams, one of her idols, in the opening round thereby earning the moniker of being someone-like the Williamses in the years to come.
However, the irony is that Venus and Serena Williams did not become who they are now while starting off as teenage prodigies. It has taken the Williams sisters over two decades on the tour to get to where they are now. In a way, they are outliers to the usual plotlines spun around tennis because they have not only shunned expectations – while battling against odds – but also used them as expedient benchmarks to be surpassed.
If they are to be used as examples, more than their achievements, it is this quality of theirs that the likes of Gauff and Osaka need to be expected to emulate – in their wins as in their losses.