by Bob Stockton
Naomi Osaka announced herself on the tennis circuit by producing two outstanding runs to win the US Open and the Australian Open over a year ago. The Japanese tennis player defeated Serena Williams at Flushing Meadows to win her first Grand Slam at the end of 2018. She then followed it up with another brilliant surge to the final in Melbourne to claim the crown with a victory over Petra Kvitova to start 2019 in perfect fashion.
The 22-year-old would have been looking to exert her authority over the women’s game in the rest of 2019, but she was not able to match the excellence of her play in the rest of the Slams. She failed even to reach quarter-finals, progressing only as far as the fourth round of the US Open. Osaka will now return to Melbourne to attempt to defend her crown, being backed in the odds on Australian Open winner outright markets at 7/1 to come away with the title for the second year in a row. Williams is the favourite for the crown, but Simona Halep and Ashleigh Barty will also be in contention and present good value in the betting odds just behind Osaka.
Osaka has the quality to win once again in Melbourne, although she will have to put the disappointments from the majority of last year behind her. After her breakthrough at the US Open and the sustained success in the Australian Open, Osaka was expected to roll towards a period of dominance. She was the number one seed for the French Open at Roland Garros and produced a fine performance to see off Victoria Azarenka in the second round. However, unseeded Katerina Siniakova brushed aside Osaka in straight sets in the third round – with the Japanese admitting that she was struggling with the burden of being the top-ranked player in the draw.
Matters were even worse at Wimbledon as dropping down to the two seed made no difference to the outcome of her first-round match. Osaka was dumped out of the tournament by Yulia Putintseva in straight sets, including the decisive one 6-2. If the defeat was a reality check, it did not appear so in the first round of the US Open. Anna Blinkova took the Japanese into a decider after winning a tie-breaker in the second set, but Osaka found her form to advance.
Order appeared to be restored with victories over Magda Linette and the impressive teenager Coco Gauff. The 22-year-old faced a tough challenge in the form of Belinda Bencic in the fourth round. The Swiss was excellent on the day and secured the win in straight sets, sending the defending champion out of the tournament.
It has been a peculiar decline in form for Osaka at the majors over the past year, but she does have the opportunity to make a statement at the Australian Open. Osaka did win the China Open in October by beating Barty in straight sets, while a shoulder injury ended her season at the WTA Finals. The Japanese is perhaps the brightest talent in the women’s game and it would be a welcome sight to see her return to her best in Melbourne. The odds suggest that she can make a deep surge in the tournament and there is even value there to back her to go all the way. However, Osaka will have to put her disappointing 2019 season outside of her triumph in Melbourne to lift the crown again.