There was this tennis match on Monday, an important fourth-round joust between defending U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka and the 13th seeded Belinda Bencic.
Bencic, a 22-year-old Swiss, pulled a 7-5, 6-4 upset over the world’s No. 1 player, and then the two ruminated about the vicissitudes of life. About lessons and expectations and injuries.
“Right now,” said Osaka, the Florida-raised 21-year-old daughter of Haitian and Japanese parents, “I have this feeling of sadness. But also that I have learned so much.”
She had followed major-tournament titles at the 2018 Open and ’19 Australian with third- and first-round eliminations at the French and Wimbledon, and Monday was another demonstration that the sport requires a head on a swivel.
“I fell I’m more chill now,” Osaka said. “Like I grew. I don’t feel like I put so much weight on one single match. Of course, to a certain extent I do, but, lessons I’ve learned . . . I guess not to take myself so seriously. Just to know there’s always another tournament. I’m kind of still figuring it out, honestly, as I go along.”
Bencic signaled early on that she would demand the best from Osaka, breaking the champ’s serve in the match’s second game and repeatedly sending passing shots by the occasionally immobile Osaka, who acknowledged a balky left knee injured at the mid-August Open tune-up event in Ohio.
Midway through the second set, Osaka took a painkiller right after Bencic had executed the shot of the match, a stinging backhand passing winner off an Osaka volley that led to a service break and a 3-2 Bencic lead.
Bencic knows about injuries. She was a U.S. quarterfinalist at 17 and in 2016 became the first teenager in seven years to reach the Top 10 but virtually disappeared when a back problem and wrist surgery dropped her to No. 312.
“People always think I’m a little bit older than I actually am,” Bencic said. “Everyone expected me to go just up. That’s not how tennis goes. I think all true athletes have to overcome obstacles, injuries, just tough times. I learned so many things. I think it made me a stronger person, better player.”
In this year of her revival, Bencic already had beaten Osaka twice, at tour events in Madrid and Indian Wells, Calif. Osaka attributed that, and Monday’s match, to Bencic’s aggressiveness, which certainly was on display.
“I don’t have the biggest power,” Bencic said. “Don’t have the most winners or most aces” —she had six on Monday, Osaka nine —“but I think I can really read the opponent’s game well.
“In these top-50 players, everyone can play very good tennis, so it’s not about who can hit a better backhand or who can hit a better forehand. It’s definitely about the mentality, how you go to the court, how you approach, if you have fear or if you’re playing freely.”
She left Osaka considering that “it’s matches like that that are most important, because it really tests your character. I think, on that side, I have a lot of growing up to do.”
She, like Bencic, has time.