Naomi Osaka’s personal struggles with depression and social anxiety have been well documented ever since the two-time U.S. Open champion withdrew from the French Open and skipped Wimbledon earlier this year to protect “her chicken and her mentals,” as Marshawn Lynch so eloquently stated.
After a tumultuous couple of months which included an upset loss at the Olympics, Osaka walked into her familiar stomping grounds — Arthur Ashe Stadium — with a 16-match winning streak at majors and four career trophies, all on hard courts.
On Friday, Osaka suffered a stunning defeat, losing 5-7, 7-6, 6-4 to an unheralded 18-year-old named Leylah Fernandez.
The loss seemed to shock Osaka as much as anybody.
There was great optimism that Osaka would rebound and advance very deep in her first Grand Slam since divulging her struggles with mental health. Millions of fans across the globe were pulling for her.
The defending US Open champion was also returning to the scene of her first majors win — an epic battle against Serena Williams in 2018.
It was the signature win that elevated Osaka to superstardom.
Many believed that a return to Flushing was exactly what Osaka needed to get back into gear.
After all, she is the defending champion and seemed to be in good spirits, recently visiting a local park in Queens to greet some inner city kids and share her love of tennis with them.
Osaka took the first set and then the usually calm mannered champion lost her composure, repeatedly giving up points and committing unforced errors.
Once her uncharacteristically poor play reached code red levels, Osaka slammed her racket on the ground and went Bo Jackson after a strikeout on everyone.
Defending champion Naomi Osaka loses to 18-year old Canadian Leylah Fernandez 5-7, 7-6, 6-4.
— Ryan Field (@RyanFieldABC) September 4, 2021
Victory wasn’t in the cards.
With the match tied 1-1, Osaka walked off the court with a towel draped over her head to try rediscover her composure.
Then in a weird turn of events, the fans flipped the script on the highest paid athlete in women’s sports by cheering for Fernandez.
With the score 5-4 in the third set, Osaka stepped off the baseline, taking a long moment of time to gather herself again. The situation worsened when the crowd started booing.
Moments later, according to courtside reports, “she chucked her equipment, sending it bouncing and skidding halfway to the net. Then came a full-on spike near the baseline.”
One could call Osaka’s reaction a meltdown. It would probably be insensitive to describe it as such, but there’s really no other description for what happened.
While Osaka hit rock bottom to a certain extent, her novice competitor was on top of the world and speaking confidently after advancing to the next round against another former U.S. Open champion.
“I’m going to put on a show like I did tonight,” said Fernandez, who was beaming with confidence prior to the match.
We know that Osaka has struggled emotionally for some time now and all of her fans were hoping that she has been attending therapy, talking to someone and dealing with her bouts of depression.
We also, selfishly just want to see the supreme talent in tennis perform on the big stage without any distractions, ailments or impediments.
Watch her make music with the racket in the same way that her boyfriend rapper Cordae uses words to create symphonies of lyrical funk.
The boos she received from fans is a harsh reminder of how fast you can go from top of the world to the target of people’s anger and frustration.
Fame and celebrity is fleeting and when you don’t give the people what they want, the way they want it, they turn on you.
Naomi Osaka says she is thinking of taking another break from tennis after her title defense at the #USOpen ended with a third-round loss to Canadian teenager Leylah Fernandez.
— AP Sports (@AP_Sports) September 4, 2021
It’s not like Osaka can’t rebound and move the crowd like Rakim again.
She just has to be mentally healthy and committed to tennis 100 percent.
And no one will determine the duration of Osaka’s absence from the sport except her. No matter how desperately fans want to control the narrative,