NEW YORK -- On Saturday night, under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium in front of a packed-to-capacity crowd, Naomi Osaka endeared herself to the world with not just her dominant win over Coco Gauff, but in her gracious actions after the match. She was the first to comfort her 15-year-old opponent and invite her to do a postmatch interview on the court.
It was a beautiful moment of sportsmanship that quickly went viral.
But a day and a half later, it was a completely different scene for the defending US Open champion. Playing again in front of a packed audience on the same court in the first match of the day and under a closed roof due to rain, she battled a knee injury and hobbled her way through a tough match against Belinda Bencic. After 1 hour, 27 minutes, Osaka was sent packing in straight sets 7-5, 6-4, and she quickly and quietly made her way off the court as Bencic took in her moment and shook her clenched fists in celebratory disbelief.
Despite the stark contrast of results in the two matches, and her obvious disappointment over the early exit, Osaka still managed to show the same maturity and poise in the loss as she had in victory.
"Right now, I have this feeling of sadness, but I also feel like I have learned so much during this tournament," she said after the match. "Honestly, of course I wanted to defend this tournament. But I feel like the steps that I have taken as a person have been much greater than I would imagine at this point. So I hope that I can keep growing. I know that if I keep working hard, then of course I'll have better results."
It was tremendous clarity for a 21-year-old who had just lost at the very tournament that had made her a global superstar a year earlier and has struggled over the past several months on and off the court.
After winning the 2018 US Open, she followed up with an Australian Open title and earned the No. 1 ranking in the world. Thanks to several high-profile endorsement deals and television appearances, she was seemingly everywhere and the face of the sport.
After eight different major winners in two turbulent seasons, it looked like women's tennis had finally found its new constant. But just weeks after her victory in Melbourne, she fired her coach, Sascha Bajin, and cited a need for happiness. She lost in the third round at the French Open, and then tearfully exited Wimbledon following a stunning upset in the first round.
She confessed in a Twitter post that it had been "the worst months of my life" and that she hadn't been having fun with the sport but was finally starting to enjoy herself again entering the summer hard-court season. She had made it to the quarters at both Toronto and Cincinnati and reclaimed the top ranking. She needed three sets in her opener in Queens against Anna Blinkova, but then cruised in her next two matches. It appeared her confidence and love for the game had returned, and many were eagerly speculating there could be a rematch of the 2018 final against Serena Williams.
But it was not to be. With the loss, Ashleigh Barty, who also fell in the fourth round, will take over the top spot in the rankings (again). Bencic has played spoiler for Osaka three times this year, handing her losses at Indian Wells, where Osaka was also the defending champion, and in Madrid.
For Bencic, this marks her first major quarterfinal appearance since her debut in Flushing Meadows in 2014 as a 17-year-old. She seized on Osaka's lack of ability to move freely on the court and won all 10 of her points at the net. When Osaka called out the trainer in the second set for a painkiller, Bencic didn't remain in her seat and instead stayed loose and kept moving.
Osaka drops first set to Bencic
Naomi Osaka gets in a nice rhythm early, but Belinda Bencic rallies back to win the first set 7-5.
Osaka by contrast seemed lifeless at times and appeared to be lacking energy and resolve. She pumped her fist after a few long rallies that she won, but otherwise showed little emotion. The only exception was when she talked to the trainer and it looked as if she had tears in her eyes, perhaps knowing the inevitable wasn't far off.
Was the drastic shift in match start time partially to blame? Was it a result of an emotional hangover following Saturday's match against Gauff and the attention that came with it? Did the pain in her knee just become too much to bear? She offered few clues in her postmatch news conference but also didn't seem all that upset over the final result. It was a notable improvement from Wimbledon, where she could barely speak after her loss and stunned the media by asking if she could leave in the middle of a question.
"I mean, in Wimbledon, I walked out on you guys," she said to the media with a smile. "In Roland Garros, I came straight from the match, so I was all gross and I just wanted to get out of there. Obviously, as you can see, I took a shower.
"I feel like I'm more chill now. I feel like I grew. I don't feel like I put so much weight on one single match.
"Honestly, I'm not that mad at this [result]. Everyone that's not new to me knows that until I won here last year, I was constantly a Round 3 person. So of course I can look at this and be very disappointed and mad, but I'm not mad at it."
So, sure, Osaka didn't defend her title and she's going home sooner than she would like, but it seems like she has finally found the peace and perspective she's been seeking. That certainly seems like it counts for something in her mind. And while maybe the perennial contender status bestowed on her was premature, she has proven she can be a constant force of positivity and grace in the sport, and someone who keeps learning as she goes.
For now, she's taking what she learned to her next tournament in her native Japan and closing out her up-and-down 2019 season the best way she can.
"I feel actually better losing here than [when] I lost in Indian Wells, because of course there's not a feeling of acceptance, but I feel like I learned a lot from today. There [are] a lot of things that I did wrong. For me, whenever I do things wrong, I usually take it to the next match. That's when I play better. So honestly, I'm just excited for the next tournament."