Naomi Osaka’s defense of her US Open championship is in tatters and her immediate future on the women’s professional tennis tour in doubt after a shocking defeat to the unseeded Leylah Annie Fernandez, a Canadian teenager ranked 74th in the world.
The third-seeded Osaka, a four-time major champion and the best hard-court player in the world by some distance, lost her composure while serving for the match, came apart during the ensuing tiebreaker and couldn’t right the ship in the third during a 5-7, 6-7 (2), 6-4 loss in 2hr 4min on Friday night.
“I feel like for me recently, like, when I win I don’t feel happy,” Osaka said afterward in an emotional session with the media. “I feel more like a relief. And then when I lose, I feel very sad. I don’t think that’s normal. I didn’t really want to cry, but basically I feel like–”
At that point the moderator intervened to end the press conference before Osaka insisted on finishing her response while attempting to hold back tears.
“Basically I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match,” Osaka continued. “But I think I’m going to take a break from playing for a while.”
Earlier amid a crackling atmosphere inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, the typically ice-cold Osaka had uncharacteristically hurled her racket to the court on two straight points while dropping the first five of a second-set tiebreaker, drawing rare boos for one of the tournament’s best liked players since her breakthrough win over Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open final.
After leaving the court with a white towel draped over her head between sets without informing chair umpire Alison Hughes, Osaka was promptly broken on her serve to open the third, then received a code violation for firing a ball into the stands as Fernandez consolidated the break for 2-0. The rollicking near-capacity crowd in the world’s biggest tennis stadium didn’t so much turn against Osaka as throw itself behind the 18-year-old underdog, who proceeded to breeze through one confident service game after another.
“In the second set I guess on the very last game I found the solution to the problem of returning her serve,” Fernandez said. “I’m glad that I found it. From then on I was just fighting, using the crowd’s energy, putting the ball back in as much as I can, just be offensive and go for my shots.”
Osaka, the reigning US Open and Australian Open champion who entered Friday’s prime-time match on a run of 16 straight wins at the major tournaments after skipping Roland Garros and Wimbledon, struggled to get on top of the rallies in her return games as Fernandez coaxed errors out of her imploding foe and coolly served her way to the finish line and her first ever win at a grand slam against an opponent ranked in the top 20.
The Montreal-born Fernandez, who turns 19 on Monday and is one of only two teenagers remaining in the women’s draw, absorbed Osaka’s pace extremely well in the championship rounds and punctuated each big point with animated fist-pumps to her box and appeals to the Ashe masses for more noise. The unsung teenager, who captured her first and only WTA title earlier this year in Monterrey, advances to a fourth-round match with Angelique Kerber, the two-time major champion who broke her grand slam maiden at Flushing Meadows five years ago.
“I wasn’t really focused on Naomi,” Fernandez said. “I was only focused on myself, my game, what I needed to do. Having the crowd there supporting me and backing me up after every point, it’s amazing. It gave me the energy to keep fighting, to keep working and keep running for those balls that she hit.
“I was just glad that I was able to put on a show for everyone that came to watch.”