With the eyes of the tennis world locked on her, Naomi Osaka quietly strode to victory Sunday during one of the first matches of the 2021 French Open.
The four-time major champion took the court at Philippe-Chatrier to face Patricia Maria Tig engulfed in controversy following Osaka’s decision not to speak to the media while playing at the event for the first time in two years. In explaining the opt-out, she cited her mental health and said she didn’t want to subject herself to people who doubted her.
But she didn’t need many words by the end of the match — except for an emphatic “Come on!” late in the second set — and instead let her racket make the statements.
It was her 15th straight victory at a Grand Slam though hardly a routine win against the tricky Tig, who won a title on clay at Istanbul in September. Tig saved a breakpoint and a match point to force a second-set tiebreak, but Osaka took control in the final moments. Despite 35 unforced errors, she had 39 winners and an 89 win percentage on first serve and won 13 of her 16 net points.
When it was over, she smiled and pulled down on her visor, partially concealing her face. She then answered a few questions on court — three, to be exact — but the format provided little insight. Still, she was optimistic about the state of her game on clay, a surface she has struggled on in the past.
“I would say it’s a work in a progress,” she said. “Hopefully the more I play, the better I’ll get.”
That’s likely all we’re going to get from Osaka before her second-round match against Ana Bogdan on Tuesday.
After Osaka announced her decision to opt out of obligatory media requirements, several fellow professional athletes, including seven-time Slam champion Venus Williams and LPGA star Michelle Wie West, were vocal in their support. Meanwhile, some members of the media, as well as fans, were unhappy with her choice. It was the subject heading into Roland Garros, with many of her peers being asked about it during their pre-event news conferences.
Osaka insisted her reasoning wasn’t personal toward the tournament, but Roland Garros officials were clearly irked. French Tennis Federation president Gilles Moretton called it a “phenomenal error” and “not acceptable” and the French Open’s official Twitter account posted pictures of Coco Gauff, Aryna Sabalenka, Rafael Nadal and Kei Nishikori participating in media obligations with the thinly veiled caption, “They understood the assignment” on Saturday. After near-instantaneous backlash to the tweet — four-time major doubles champion and ESPN analyst Rennae Stubbs called it “serious shade” and an attempt to humiliate Osaka — it was deleted.
Osaka didn’t respond on social media, but the outcry and the proverbial haters could provide some fuel for her at the tournament, in which she has never advanced past the third round.
Osaka certainly could use the extra help. She played in two lead-in events on clay before Paris, recording a 1-2 record and not quite looking like the No. 2 player in the world or a threat at the year’s second major.
And she knows all too well what it’s like to face the media after a devastating early exit at a Slam. Just six months after hoisting her second major trophy at the Australian Open in 2019, Osaka lost in the opening round at Wimbledon (following a third-round exit at Roland Garros). The 21-year-old was peppered with inquiries about whether the success was too much, too soon in a room packed full of media from around the world.
“Can I leave? I feel like I’m about to cry,” she asked the moderator before walking out.
There was no such departure on Sunday and no one to have to answer to. She was able to say everything she had to say on the court during her hard-fought victory.
Afterward, Osaka tweeted a photo of her walking off the court. Appropriately, the caption offered no words.
While she says she has no room in her head for doubt, she left little doubt she came to Paris to win.
What else is there really to say?