Can Naomi Osaka get her groove back?
Can she fulfill the promise she showed a year ago here in Queens when she capped a four-week run of championship-level tennis and political activism by winning her second U.S. Open title in three years?
If ever there was a safe space for Osaka to compete, the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center is it.
New Yorkers fell in love with Osaka three years ago when the then 21-year-old beat Serena Williams in an ugly, tear-filled final that ended with Williams’ infamous fight with chair umpire Carlos Ramos.
The fans’ affection was on clear display Monday night when No. 3 Osaka opened her tournament with a 6-4, 6-1 win over the Czech Republic’s Marie Bouzkova. Fans cheered her a long as she struggled to find her A-game in the first set and then celebrated as she dominated in the second.
"It feels kind of crazy to play in front of everyone again," said Osaka, who played in an empty stadium because of COVID19 last year. I just want to say thank you for coming out here … I think the energy here is definitely unmatched."
There’s no question that Osaka is one of the most beloved players in sports. This year, she became the highest-paid female athlete ever, earning $60 million according to Forbes magazine. Yet, while advertisers and fans seem to love Osaka, she hasn’t been so gentle on herself.
On Sunday, the 23-year-old Osaka took to Instagram and Twitter to share a lengthy and emotional statement about changing her mindset after a three-year battle with anxiety and depression.
"Recently I’ve been asking myself why do I feel the way I do and I realize one of the reasons is because internally I think I’m never good enough," Osaka said.
"I never tell myself that I’ve done a good job, but I do know I constantly tell myself that I suck or I could do better."
Osaka’s mental health became a focus when she announced that she was going to skip news conferences at the French Open this summer because she found them stressful.
After she was fined $15,000 and threatened with escalating fines, she dropped out of the tournament. She also elected to sit out Wimbledon.
Osaka, who represents Japan but is based in the United States, returned to play in the Tokyo Olympics and lit the Olympic caldron during the Opening Ceremony. She lost, however, in the third round of The Games to eventual silver medalist Marketa Vondrousova.
In the latest chapter of her tough summer, Osaka broke down two weeks ago during a news conference at the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati.
For the most part, fans and advertisers have been supportive of Osaka’s journey, of the fact she is willing to talk so openly about her mental health challenges. At the same time, a number of tennis figures, including Billie Jean King, have made it clear that speaking to the media is part of a tennis player’s job.
"You can’t make the big bucks and expect to play in a bubble," King told me last week while stressing that she is very proud of how open Osaka has been about what she has gone through.
Osaka may be the No. 3- ranked player in the world, but there’s no doubt that she has become the face of women’s tennis. Serena Williams, who dominated the game for the past two decades, withdrew from this year’s tournament because of an injury and is clearly on a decline.
It’s hard to imagine a more spectacular ending to Osaka’s long, hard summer than if she were to win it all this week at Flushing Meadows, if she were to win her third Open in four years. The U.S. Open is a perfect court for her power game, a perfect place for her to turn things around.
It wouldn’t be a bad thing for tennis either.