French Open: Osaka Struggles on Clay, Anisimova Powers Forward

PARIS — For now, though not necessarily for good, Naomi Osaka remains a one-surface wonder.

She was back at it on Monday, trying to change the equation on her return to the red clay at the French Open after last year’s unfortunate dispute with the tournament’s organizers.

That communication breakdown and confrontation over Osaka’s refusal to do news conferences to preserve her mental health led to her withdrawal after just one round.

But though this year’s mood was much sunnier all around, the bottom line was essentially the same: Osaka will not be playing in the second round in Paris.

She was bounced out, 7-5, 6-4, on Monday in her opening match by a now-familiar foe: Amanda Anisimova, a 20-year-old American who, like the 24-year-old Osaka, honed her game in South Florida and can pound a tennis ball with astonishing force and apparently little effort.

The pace was ferocious from the start, just as it was at the Australian Open earlier this season, when these two ultra-aggressive baseliners played for the first time.

Anisimova prevailed in Melbourne in the third round in three big-bang sets — 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (10-5) — saving two match points on her serve in the final set.

And she had a clearer edge on Monday at the French Open, where Anisimova reached the semifinals at 17 in 2019.

“When you see Naomi Osaka in the first round, you don’t think it’s going to be easy,” Anisimova, the No. 27 seed, said. “Going into the match, I did feel the stress and the nerves a bit, because it’s a very tough first round. I’m just happy with how I was able to manage it and get through it.”

Anisimova, above, beat Osaka on Monday in the French Open and in January in the third round of the Australian Open.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

Viewed objectively, this was not an upset. Anisimova, not the unseeded Osaka, was the higher-ranked player, and despite their similar playing styles, Anisimova looks at clay and sees opportunity while Osaka, yet to advance past the third round in Paris, seems to see something closer to the surface of the moon.

To feel more at ease on the surface, she needs to play and compete much more often on it. Instead, she has played just nine singles matches on clay in the last three seasons and just three this year after a left Achilles’ tendon injury scuttled her plans to get her socks dirtier than usual, forcing her to withdraw from the Italian Open.

Meanwhile, Anisimova reached the semifinals in Charleston, S.C., and the quarterfinals in Madrid and Rome: all on clay.

As of now, Osaka’s career singles record on hardcourts is 133-56. On clay, it is 21-17, and on grass just 11-9. She said on Monday that she was leaning toward not playing next month at Wimbledon, which is played on grass courts, now that the WTA Tour had stripped the Grand Slam event of ranking points in response to Wimbledon’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players.

“I feel like if I play Wimbledon without points, it’s more like an exhibition,” Osaka said. “I know this isn’t true, right? But my brain just like feels that way. Whenever I think something is like an exhibition, I just can’t go at it 100 percent.”

Wimbledon, founded in 1877, has been around a great deal longer than ranking points, which the WTA began using in 1975. Leading players who do not win the singles title there at some stage in their career still have to feel like there is a gap in their résumé. (Just ask Ken Rosewall, Ivan Lendl, Monica Seles or, more recently, Andy Roddick.)

Iga Swiatek, the new WTA No. 1, is certainly heading there, points or no points. So, it appears, is Serena Williams, who at age 40 is 20 years older than Swiatek as she chases one more major singles title after not competing since last year’s Wimbledon.

But Osaka is uncertain, although she may head to Berlin to play in the new grass-court event there that will count toward her ranking.

“As a whole, I feel like I’m going to stop telling myself that I’m bad on these surfaces,” she said of grass and clay, “and instead just keep my head down and keep working really hard, because I think that’s what I’ve been doing this whole year. I can’t expect everything to, like, come at once. So hopefully, gradually I will have the results that I want.”

For now, she has four Grand Slam singles titles, all on hardcourts, the most recent at the 2021 Australian Open about 16 months ago. The pecking order is shifting and not in her favor. After breaking down in tears midmatch at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., in March after a heckler rattled her in a second-round defeat, she bounced back to reach the final of the Miami Open, where Swiatek trounced her, 6-4, 6-0.

Osaka, who plays for Japan and is based in the United States, remains one of the biggest stars in sports and the highest-paid female athlete in the world by a large margin. She has enough lucrative long-term sponsorship deals to justify recently breaking away from IMG to start her own management agency with Stuart Duguid, her agent.

But Osaka will be ranked around No. 40 in the world after Roland Garros, and though her portfolio looks redwood solid, how does it affect the bottom line and place in the sports landscape if a younger player like Swiatek takes true command of the sport and younger, perhaps hungrier players like Anisimova continue to outmuscle Osaka early in major tournaments?

To what degree, in the social media age, do results and celebrity need to continue aligning after the millions of followers are already acquired?

Osaka, left ankle wrapped, seemed genuinely intent on changing her luck on Monday, digging into the corners and maintaining positive energy nearly until the end. But Anisimova was more consistent on serve and more devastating from the baseline and, above all, on returns.

Osaka finished with eight double faults and put just 45 percent of her first serves in play, which meant big trouble against a slugger who looks at second serves the way a lion looks at a wounded impala.

Osaka, whose four major victories have come on hardcourts, has yet to advance past the third round on the clay of a French Open, and she said she might skip Wimbledon, which is played on grass.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

Women’s tennis is awash in talent and depth even after Ashleigh Barty’s surprise retirement in March while the No. 1 player in women’s tennis. Not long after Anisimova’s victory, the 19-year-old Frenchwoman Diane Parry took to the main Philippe Chatrier Court and defeated Barbora Krejcikova, the No. 2 seed and reigning French Open champion, 1-6, 6-2, 6-3.

This, too, was no full-blown upset. Krejcikova had not competed since February because of a right elbow injury. But Parry, with her rare one-handed backhand, still had to come up with the goods under duress to close out the match and secure her first victory over a top-50 player.

Anisimova showed high-level moxie herself. She can implode, losing control of her emotions and her high-risk strokes. But she is also capable of remaining bold under big pressure, which bodes well for her long-range Grand Slam prospects.

Anisimova, the second daughter of Russian immigrants to the United States, has been through a great deal in her young life. After her joyride to the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2019, her father and longtime coach, Konstantin, died from a heart attack in August that year.

Anisimova said she was “kind of lost” for a couple of years but she was finding her way again. “I wouldn’t say that I wish I went through those things, or I’m grateful that I went through those things because they’re very hard,” Anisimova told me in Australia. “But they are things that have gotten me where I am today, and, yeah, they’ve made me strong.”

She is still, in a sense, working her way back, but her ball-striking, on a good day like Monday, is a sight to behold. And while Osaka’s latest clay-court season is over in a hurry, Anisimova’s continues to run.