MELBOURNE, Australia — Naomi Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam singles champion who nearly walked away from tennis last year, was eliminated from the Australian Open on Friday by the unseeded American Amanda Anisimova.
Anisimova prevailed in three tense sets, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (10-5), after saving two match points in the third set.
“Definitely I think I fought for every point and I can’t be sad about that,” Osaka said. “I’m not God. I can’t win every match. So I just have to, like, take that into account and know that it would be nice to win the tournament but that’s, like, really special.”
Osaka, who had not played a competitive match since last summer’s U.S. Open, seemed to acknowledge that her game was not yet completely back to where she thinks it can go.
“I think the pace of her ball surprised me, but other than that it was fun to play,” she said, her hands folded by her left cheek. Appearing at ease and smiling often in a news conference situation that she has admitted makes her uncomfortable, Osaka told reporters that she has been meditating recently. She delivered her answers in a series of calm and measured responses.
“I know there are days I’m going to have bad days and days I’m going to have great days,” she added. “It’s always random, and I never know. But no matter what happens for me, I know I want to leave the court knowing that I’ve fought for every point. Today there were things I thought I could improve in, but even with that I had two match points and even with that it is something I can be proud of myself for.”
Osaka, 24, was returning to major-tournament action in Melbourne after taking an extended break from the game to rekindle her love of the sport. Her return came after an unusually emotional year in which her openness about her mental health struggles had altered the discussion of both her successes and her more recent — and public — disappointments.
Osaka was seeded just 13th here but showed plenty of fire and desire in her third-round match against Anisimova: generating trademark thunder with her heavy groundstrokes and pumping her fist and shouting “Come on!” to commemorate her successes. But Anisimova, long considered one of the most promising young players in the game, held remarkably firm, coming back from an inconsistent opening set and finding her range in her first match against Osaka.
“Going into this match I knew I had to be playing sharp if I wanted to give myself a chance,” Anisimova said. “Naomi is always going to be playing well, and she’s an absolute champion, so I knew that I really had to step up my game and try to be aggressive. I think that’s what I started doing in the second set. Honestly, I’m so grateful that I was able to play so well today.”
A semifinalist at the French Open at age 17 in 2019, Anisimova looked ready to play a leading role in the game consistently in her teens, but that was before family tragedy: the death of her father and longtime coach, Konstantin, of a heart attack in August 2019, shortly before the United States Open.
Anisimova said she admired Osaka’s openness about her mental health issues, and called her opponent’s decision to speak openly of her struggles “inspiring.”
“Just to spread awareness and try to get rid of a stigma for mental health, I think we’re in a completely different time and this generation is becoming more honest about these kinds of things,” Anisimova said. “I’m comfortable speaking about whatever. I’ve gone through a couple hard years, and don’t mind posting stuff on social media and spreading awareness for other people who are going through tough things.”
Last year had been a forgettable one for Osaka, 24, who entered it as the dominant figure in her sport and the world’s highest paid female athlete, and ended it as something else altogether.
Her game began to unravel in the early spring, and a confrontation with French Open officials over her refusal to appear at mandatory postmatch news conferences led to her withdrawal from the tournament. Afterward, she went public with her yearslong battle with depression, took two months off, then returned at the Tokyo Olympics, where she lit the torch but lost in the third round amid relentless pressure to excel.
She said Friday that she is now doing her best to look forward.
“I just want to go into this year knowing that I’ll play the whole year and I’ll just have the greatest attitude ever,” she said. “I’ll fight for every point and even if I win or lose I’ll just go off court trying the best I could. And there’s no way anyone can expect anything more of me because they saw how hard I fought.”
Anisimova’s victory broke up the most anticipated match of the tournament, a potential fourth-round duel between Osaka and the world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty of Australia. Now Anisimova will face Barty instead.