PARIS (Reuters) – The weight of expectation has finally been lifted off Naomi Osaka’s shoulders.
The 21-year-old Japanese player entered Roland Garros as world No. 1 for the first time and had been trying to achieve something no-one else has ever done: having won her first two majors, winning a third in succession.
Playing the 27th-seeded Katerina Siniakova in the third round of the French Open – a matchup between the No. 1 singles and doubles players – Osaka crumbled and lost in straight sets, 6-4 6-2.
Competing on the high-bouncing clay, not her preferred surface, under such scrutiny had been tough for Osaka, who one year ago was ranked 70th in the world.
“I just feel like there has been a weight on me,” Osaka told reporters after the Czech ended a 16-match win streak in the grand slams. “That’s because everything is sort of new. I have played the French Open before but not in this circumstance or situation, whichever one.”
Hugely popular in her native Japan with a string of lucrative corporate endorsements, Osaka has been getting used to her new status.
“This tournament I have had a feeling that was different to the other Grand Slams, or every other Grand Slam that I have played, because usually I find it very freeing and fun, and this time around I was kind of tense the entire time,” she said.
Having rallied after losing the first set in her opening match against 90th-ranked Slovakian Anna Karolina Schmiedlova and in her second-round tie with former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, Osaka never settled against 23-year-old Siniakova, the reigning Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion.
“I would just say I’m very disappointed in how I played, and I wish I could have done better,” said Osaka, who got broken three times, made 38 unforced errors and struck 25 winners.
Siniakova didn’t drop serve, hit 12 winners and made just 13 unforced errors.
One of the most aggressive players in the women’s game, Osaka squandered all seven break points she created in the first set.
“My returns weren’t great at all today,” she said. “I knew that I was flat. I knew that if I stayed in the rallies on the forehand side, I would probably definitely, 99% of the time, win the rally. But for some reason I kept switching down the line and doing really weird stuff.”
Still, Osaka said she is leaving Paris with a positive mindset.
“It’s weird, but I think me losing is probably the best thing that could have happened,” she said.
“I was overthinking this calendar slam. For me this is something that I have wanted to do forever, but I think I have to think about it like if it was that easy, everyone would have done it. I just have to keep training hard and put myself in a position again to do it, hopefully.”
(Reporting by Danielle Rossingh; Editing by Hugh Lawson)