NEW YORK — Fighting back tears, four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka said after her third-round defeat at the U.S. Open on Friday that she is thinking of taking a break from competition.
As Osaka teared up, the moderator moved to halt the news conference, but she interrupted to say, “I kind of want to finish this.”
She continued, acknowledging that the feelings she wanted to share were difficult to articulate.
“Basically, I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do,” Osaka said, speaking to a room with a few dozen masked journalists and a screen showing the faces of others participating via Zoom. “I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match.”
The U.S. Open marked Osaka’s return to Grand Slam competition after a nearly three-month hiatus to address her mental health and spend time with family following her May 31 withdrawal from the French Open.
She had announced via social media that she wouldn’t take part in the obligatory French Open post-match interviews to safeguard her mental health. After being fined and threatened with disqualification for skipping her first required interview, Osaka withdrew from the tournament, then also skipped Wimbledon.
With an eye toward preparing for the U.S. Open, where she was a two-time and defending champion, Osaka entered a tuneup event in Cincinnati. And on the eve of the U.S. Open, she wrote an Instagram post about having adopted a more positive, constructive mind-set in which she vowed to be less critical of her herself and celebrate her successes.
Friday’s match, which Fernandez won 5-7, 7-6 (7-2), 6-4, revealed an uncharacteristic side of the soft-spoken champion, whose on-court comportment has been impeccable, regardless of the pressure.
After failing to serve out the match in the second set, Osaka piled one error atop another in the tiebreaker that followed. As her game unraveled, so did Osaka’s emotions.
In uncharacteristic fashion, she struck her racket frame on the court. After another error, she tossed her racket, then bashed it. The chair umpire chose not to issue a warning, which would have been expected under the rule book.
“I’m really sorry about that,” Osaka said about the incidents during her news conference. “I’m not really sure why …. I was telling myself to be calm, but I feel like maybe there was a boiling point.
“Like normally I feel like I like challenges. But recently I feel very anxious when things don’t go my way, and I feel like you can feel that. I’m not really sure why it happens the way it happens now … You could kind of see that. I was kind of like a little kid.”
After Fernandez claimed the tiebreaker to force a third set, Osaka left the court for a permissible break. She returned a few minutes later with a towel over her head and shrouding most of her face. She apologized for her behavior to the chair umpire, according to ESPN’s Mary Joe Fernandez, who was courtside.
Although she played better in the third set, Osaka failed to slow Fernandez’s momentum or shake the teenager’s belief.
Fernandez’s heroics on Arthur Ashe Stadium followed those of another teen — Carlos Alcaraz, who topped third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas in a five-set thriller in Friday’s afternoon session.
At 18, the 55th-ranked Alcaraz became the youngest man to beat a top-three player at the U.S. Open since ATP rankings were first kept in 1973.
And he fell flat on his back, overcome with awe and relief, when his final shot — a forehand blast to an open court — sealed the tiebreaker that clinched the 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (7-2), 0-6, 7-6 (7-5) victory.
“Without the crowd, I haven’t the possibility to win the match,” Alcaraz told the crowd, which fell deliriously in love with the young Spaniard over the course of a 4 hour 7 minute physical contest. “Thank you to the crowd for pushing me up.”
Alcaraz claimed the biggest victory of his young career not by catching the 23-year-old Tsitsipas on an off day. He won the match on merits — with courage, dazzling backhand winners, devilish drop shots and grit.
If some tennis fans see in Alcaraz the next Rafael Nadal, it is understandable.
But the label of “the next Nadal” is not something that is embraced or endorsed by Alcaraz’s coach, former world No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, who has said it is unnecessary baggage for the teen to shoulder.
Moreover, the right-handed Alcaraz plays his own brand of tennis — more attack-oriented than that of the left-handed Nadal, Spain’s most famous athlete and tied with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic for a men’s record 20 Grand Slam titles.
Against the 6-foot-4 Tsitsipas, who boasts a variety of strokes and tactics, Alcaraz displayed even greater range and bolder tactics.
Alcaraz wasn’t Tsitsipas’s only foe.
From the start, the bellicose crowd was against him. And his own father, Apostolos, who is also his coach, did Tsitsipas no favors, either, drawing a warning from the chair umpire for improper coaching (via apparent hand signals) during the third-set tiebreaker.
The defeat represented a dramatic reversal of fortune for Tsitsipas, often spotlighted as the face of the sport’s next generation.
But in recent months, Tsitsipas has drawn criticism from fellow players for taking extended breaks at critical junctures in his matches — leaving the court for overly long yet permissible bathroom breaks. Three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray called it “rubbish” after Tsitsipas did exactly that during their first-round match Monday.
On Wednesday, U.S. Open fans booed Tsitsipas when he took another long break during his second-round match against Adrian Mannarino. And they were in no mood for a reprise Friday — particular not against a teenager who was pouring his heart into every shot. So they booed when Tsitsipas called for the trainer early in the proceedings to evaluate his feet, then changed his socks and shoes.
Their animus gained steam as the match ground on. The crowed cheered Tsitsipas’s faults and mis-hits and cheered each ball Alcaraz struck.
The partisanship was laid bare after the fourth set, when Tsitsipas, his clothes drenched in sweat, headed off court for a bathroom break. He was booed mercilessly. But when Alcaraz decided to take a break, too, he was cheered as he followed Tsitsipas off court.
Asked afterward how he interpreted the boos, Tsitsipas said: “Look, I’m not pretending that everyone loves me … My intentions are not to be loved by everyone.”