Reigning champion Osaka loses US Open match to 18-year-old Leylah Fernandez
NEW YORK: Naomi Osaka smacked her racket against Arthur Ashe Stadium’s court. Moments later, she chucked her equipment, sending it bouncing and skidding halfway to the net. Then came a full-on spike near the baseline.
Osaka’s game was off. Her composure was gone. By the end, the crowd was booing her for turning her back to the court and taking too much time between points.
Soon enough, the No. 3-seeded Osaka’s title defense at the U.S. Open was over in the third round with a 5-7, 6-7 (2), 6-4 loss Friday night to Leylah Fernandez, an 18-year-old from Canada who is ranked 73rd and never had been this far in Grand Slam competition.
Still, Fernandez declared afterward: “Right before the match, I knew I was able to win.”
This day had that sort of vibe: Earlier in Ashe, another 18-year-old new to this territory surprisingly eliminated a No. 3 seed when Carlos Alcaraz of Spain edged French Open runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 0-6, 7-6 (5) to become the youngest man into the fourth round at Flushing Meadows since Michael Chang and Pete Sampras in 1989.
Osaka came in with a 16-match winning streak at majors and four career trophies, all on hard courts, including by beating Serena Williams in a chaotic and contentious final at the 2018 U.S. Open.
This was Osaka’s first Slam tournament since she pulled out of the French Open before the second round to take a mental health break — she also sat out Wimbledon, before participating in the Tokyo Olympics, where she lit the cauldron — and maybe the time away from high-level competition was an issue.
Another possible factor in her failure to close things out while serving for the victory against the left-hander Fernandez at 6-5 in the second set: Osaka hadn’t played a match since Monday. The usual day-on, day-off rhythm at a Grand Slam event was disrupted because the woman Osaka was supposed to meet in the second round, Olga Danilovic, withdrew with an illness.
The Summer Olympics marked Osaka’s first action anywhere since May 30 at the French Open.
That day, Osaka skipped her mandatory news conference after her first-round victory in Paris, drawing a $15,000 fine and a warning from the heads of the Slams that she could face a suspension. She responded by pulling out of Roland Garros, explaining that she feels anxiety when speaking to the media and has dealt with depression for years.
The 23-year-old, who was born in Japan and has lived in the U.S. since she was 3, left the court after seven games Friday to change outfits and put on a highlighter-yellow dress. On court, she, was quite good down the stretch in the opening set. She grabbed 12 of 13 points, including the last nine, with a break at love to go up 6-5, and a hold at love with the help of a pair of aces at 112 mph and 114 mph to end it.
Seemed on track for a similar conclusion in the second set, leading 6-5 and serving. But when Osaka sailed a forehand wide, Fernandez had her first break of the match to make it 6-all.
“I guess I wanted to stay on court a little bit longer. And I wanted to put on a show for everybody here,” Fernandez said. “One hour was not enough for me to be on court.”
And so began Osaka’s downward spiral. She fell behind 5-0 in the ensuing tiebreaker, missing shots and displaying her frustration as she occasionally has done in the past — by flinging her racket.
Chair umpire Alison Hughes did not sanction Osaka then, although later a warning was issued for hitting a ball into the stands.
“Honestly, I wasn’t focusing on Naomi,” Fernandez said. “I was only focusing on myself and what I needed to do.”
More to the point, Osaka was not at her best. She left the court with a white towel draped over her head after the second set, then sat in her changeover chair in that same block-out-the-world manner, and never really got her game going the rest of the way.
Fernandez, smiling and holding her right fist overhead after the biggest of points, certainly had something to do with that, particularly because of her serve.
She won 18 of 19 first-serve points — and never faced a break point — in the third set.
Fernandez’s knee-to-the-ground, quick-redirect style at the baseline is reminiscent of another lefty, Angelique Kerber, a three-time Grand Slam champion who won the 2016 U.S. Open.
And who just so happens to be the next opponent for Fernandez.
“I’m going to put on a show like I did tonight,” Fernandez said, “and we’re going to see how it goes.”
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