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With Ashleigh Barty bidding farewell, is Naomi Osaka ready to reclaim her place atop the women's game?
While Barty said the tour has left her “spent,” Osaka, who is talking to a therapist for the first time, seems to be fortifying herself for its stresses.
Published Mar 26, 2022
WATCH: Osaka spoke to the media following her Miami Open second round win over Angelique Kerber.
According to Naomi Osaka, she learned about Ashleigh Barty’s retirement the way a lot of us learned about it.
“My friend texted me,” Osaka said after her first-round match at the Miami Open. “She’s like, ‘Yo, do you know that Barty retired?’ I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s weird.’
“Then I went on Twitter and saw it was actually a thing.”
Osaka said she’s happy for Barty, and that it’s, “Cool to, like, leave the game when you’re No. 1; you feel like you have nothing left to prove.”
Is that something that would appeal to Osaka herself?
“Me?” she smiled. “If I answer this question, Wim [Fissette, her coach] will get mad.”
Ten months ago, if you had asked tennis fans to predict which top women’s player would be retired by the spring of 2022, Osaka would have easily out-polled Barty.
At the time, Osaka was balking at mandatory press conferences, withdrawing from Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and talking frankly about the strains that the tour puts on her mental health.
Barty, meanwhile, was embracing the grind like she never had before. Unable to easily return home to Australia because of COVID-19, she stayed on the road and won titles in Miami and Stuttgart, and fulfilled every player’s childhood dream by winning Wimbledon. Yes, Barty had left the tour for three years when she was younger, but at 25 she seemed much better adjusted to its rigors—accepting defeat, dealing with the media—than Osaka. Yet it was Barty, saying she was “spent,” who was the first to call it quits.
What kind of effect might Barty’s retirement have on Osaka? The two weren’t close—“I exchange hellos and stuff with her, but I’ve never really had an in-depth conversation, which would be cool,” Osaka says.
Rather than friends, they had the makings of the WTA’s next great rivalry. Osaka has four major titles, Barty three. Osaka was dominant on hard courts, while Barty won at Wimbledon and Roland Garros. Their head-to-head record was 2-2. With their contrasting game styles, they were a matchup to look forward to. Now Osaka, despite being ranked 77th at the moment, will reabsorb some of the attention that would otherwise have gone toward Barty.
Asked for her memories of playing Barty, Osaka talked about their last meeting, in Beijing in 2019. She remembered her victory as a kind of competitive oasis for her. It sounds like a state of peace that Osaka would love to find more often on court.
“It was such a fun match to play. For me that’s the biggest memory I have,” Osaka said. “Just to play a match where it’s pure tennis, there’s nothing else going on. I think we were both just trying our best, being as respectful as we could.”
While Barty says she doesn’t have the “physical drive, the emotional want” she needs to keep competing, Osaka seems to be fortifying herself for the stresses of her job, for the distractions that keep it from being “pure tennis.” She announced this week that, after a heckler brought her to tears in Indian Wells, she’s talking to a therapist for the first time.
“It only took like a year after [the] French Open,” she said. “She kind of told me strategies and stuff. I realize how helpful it is. I’m glad I have people around me who told me to go in that direction.”
Osaka says her sister, Mari, suggested that she see someone, and that Fissette said that if it can “help you out .5 percent, that alone is worth it.”
“I’m quite new to this,” Osaka said. “I would be lying if I said I know exactly the role that [the therapist] would play. But for now, I feel like it helps me out a lot.
“I think this person would be a part of my team, and they would be quite important.”
The unseeded Osaka has played well so far this week, beating Astra Sharma and Angelique Kerber in her first two matches. After getting a walkover when Karolina Muchova withdrew from their third-rounder on Saturday due to an abdominal injury, she’ll play either Ann Li or Alison Riske in the round of 16.
Osaka says she likes the idea of retiring when you have nothing left to prove, and she wants to see the rest of her career as a “bonus,” with no pressure. But she doesn’t seem to have reached that point quite yet. After her one-sided win over Kerber, Osaka said she had heard Caroline Wozniacki, in the commentary booth earlier in the tournament, say she liked Kerber’s chances to advance farther than Osaka.
“I was like, ‘Hmm, I know I was kind of underachieving these last couple of months, but I still feel like I’m a pretty good player,’” Osaka said.
With one young women’s star suddenly gone, it’s good to know that another still feels she has things to prove, and much more tennis to play.