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Australian Open 2022: No disgrace in defeat for Naomi Osaka as Rafael Nadal delivers statement victory

The Independent
The Independent
 2022-01-21

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For Naomi Osaka , defeat in the Australian Open third round was a sign of progress rather than crisis. Osaka returned to Melbourne as the defending champion and ignored the tumult she has endured over the past year, and if her main priority now is just to recapture a simpler joy of playing tennis, it frequently shone through in a match that delivered relentless fireworks against Amanda Anisimova.

It was a breathtaking 135-minute contest that demanded the biggest spotlight in Melbourne Park, even if it had not been selected for the main stage. A battle of power and supreme ball-striking, resilience and competitive ferocity, Osaka had surged into an early lead in the first set, breaking Anisimova in her opening service game and never relinquishing that ascendancy. But the momentum turned afterwards as the young American found another gear, gaining the upper hand in long slugging rallies from behind the baseline, and she successfully dragged Osaka into the sort of deeper waters that might expose her lack of match practise.

Every hold of serve proved an exhausting adventure, with games tipping the five-minute mark as the pair traded blows at deuce, but it was Anisimova who produced the decisive moment of imagination: an exquisite backhand drop shot that left Osaka flat-footed and a break down. Anisimova, a 20-year-old prodigy from Florida who reached the French Open semi-final in 2019, seemed to grow in confidence with every point, taking on daring winners and treating Osaka’s unusually weak second serve with utter contempt. She closed out the set without hesitation to set up the decider and, by that stage, it was clear Osaka’s defence was in real jeopardy.

To her credit, leaning on all her experience as a four-time grand slam champion, Osaka reset and made a more assured start to the third set. That superior maturity almost proved decisive when a somewhat frustrated Anisimova was forced to serve to stay in the match at 5-4. The nerves invaded her mind, she fell slightly out of her rhythm and twice coughed up match points. The tension was so gripping that Osaka began to repeatedly shake her arms in an effort to release it between points. But that provided no defence against Anisimova, who held nothing back in those key moments, forced Osaka to err and finally closed out the game with an emphatic ace. From thereon, Anisimova was brilliant and ruthless, matching composure and aggression in the tiebreak to take it 10-5. It will go down as a big shock, but it was a case of Anisimova’s excellence as opposed to Osaka’s shortcomings.

Osaka’s reluctance to conduct press conferences was the contentious spark that eventually caused her to withdraw from last year’s French Open and reveal her years-long battle with depression, resulting in extended breaks from the court. She spoke at length with reporters in Melbourne, though, and reflected thoughtfully on the nature of this loss and where it leaves her.

“I fought for every point, I can’t be sad about that,” Osaka said after the 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5) defeat. “You know, like, I’m not God, I can’t win every match. So I just have to take that into account and know that it would be nice to win the tournament, but that’s really special, and I can’t think of myself to try to win the grand slam at the start of the year every time... I feel like I grew a lot in this match. The last match that I played in New York I think I had a completely different attitude.”

Osaka’s defeat denied fans a highly anticipated fourth-round meeting with world No 1 Ashleigh Barty, who in contrast required just an hour to dispatch Italy’s Camila Giorgi in straight sets. Fellow top-10 players Barbora Krejcikova, Maria Sakkari and Paula Badosa also made it through in a draw that remains wide open with possibility.

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Rafael Nadal could hardly have been considered one of the favourites in the men’s draw heading into the tournament, even after Novak Djokovic’s withdrawal. The 35-year-old spent most of last year recuperating from a foot injury and yet, in his four-set victory over Karen Khachanov , Nadal summoned some of his oldest trademarks and eradicated any doubts about his threat this fortnight.

Seeded sixth in the draw, this was a significant test against a fresher, big-hitting opponent, but Nadal’s wicked forehand and fighting spirit were lethal and undiminished. He raced into a two-set lead with total authority, breaking Khachanov’s fearsome serve at the beginning of both, and although he stuttered in the third, Nadal restored order emphatically in the fourth, with the sheer quality of shotmaking regularly raising the crowd to their feet as he closed out a 6-3 6-2 3-6 6-1 victory. “I have been going through some very tough times the last year and a half but for me nights like today mean everything,” he said in an emotional on-court interview. “That is a lot of energy in my pocket to keep going, keep fighting, every single day.”

If he is to leap ahead of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic and win a 21st grand slam next week, Nadal will still have to come through far sterner tests, though. Matteo Berrettini, who lost to Djokovic in last summer’s Wimbledon final, secured his place in the fourth round with a momentous five-set victory over Carlos Alcaraz, the Spanish teenager primed to eventually inherit Nadal’s crown. Olympic champion Alexander Zverev also advanced in a far less scrutinising match against Romanian qualifier Radu Albot. He will now face the No14 seed Denis Shapovalov in one of the fourth round’s standout ties.

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