MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Eight-time tournament champion Serena Williams never played a point in a Miami Open tennis match on Saturday, while top-seeded Naomi Osaka probably feels like she had never played so many — nor such bizarre ones. Yet within 90 minutes of each other, both women were out of this final tournament of the U.S. hardcourt swing.
It’s the second time in less than two weeks that the pair — arguably the most intriguing stars in the WTA galaxy — have unexpectedly gone dark. Two weekends ago at Indian Wells, Williams retired with a viral illness during her third-round match with No. 20 seed Garbine Muguruza, then Osaka was beaten in the fourth round by No. 23 seed Belinda Bencic.
“I am disappointed to withdraw from the Miami Open due to a left knee injury,” Williams said in a brief written statement, issued by the tournament, that shed no further light on the nature of the damage.
“I think I got too emotional,” Osaka said following her 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3 third-round loss to poker-faced Su-Wei Hsieh, who recovered from down a break in the third set to win. “It’s something I did last match, too, and I’m not sure why this is happening.”
Once she won, Hsieh also unbottled her emotions, telling the crowd assembled in the sunshine inside the tennis stadium built in the larger Hard Rock Stadium: “Every time you made it, beat a good player, you feel, ‘Wow, this is everything. I made it. This is amazing.'”
Taking the measure of good players is becoming Hsieh’s stock in trade. Although she’s ranked No. 27, in recent meetings she is 5-5 against top-10 opponents (including beating another No. 1, Simona Halep). Osaka was lucky to escape the web Hsieh so artfully weaves when the two last met, in the third round at the recent Australian Open. There, Hsieh won the first set and built a commanding, 4-1 second-set lead before Osaka mounted a furious fightback to advance.
On this occasion, Hsieh flipped the script. Osaka won the first set and broke Hsieh to lead 2-0 in the second. Osaka then made the critical mistake of taking her foot off the gas. “Sometimes when returning her serve in second set, I felt myself relaxing,” Osaka admitted afterward. “I thought I could serve it out anyways.”
And why not? Osaka hadn’t been beaten in 63 successive matches after winning the first set. And no top seed had ever lost this early in the 30-plus-year history of this tournament. Yet, Osaka maintained that she had never underestimated Hsieh. Rather: “Every time I played her [three times now], it’s three sets. In Australia, honestly, she should have won it, but I found a way. I think maybe today I overestimated myself.”
Once Hsieh broke back to even the second set, the match resembled one of those slow-motion videos of the demolition of an old stadium or bridge. It proceeded with a slow, almost terrible inevitability, and the signs of imminent collapse were conspicuous.
Osaka’s game began to show signs of deep stress. She began to go for too much, too soon. She grew visibly impatient. She tossed her racket, lost the range on her first serve. On the changeover after Hsieh broke her to take a fatal 4-3 lead, Osaka sat with her face buried in a towel. Hsieh was already briskly walking to her end when the umpire called “time,” but Osaka just continued to sit, face obscured.
That’s what the 33-year-old Taiwanese can do to a player. She’s coached by her boyfriend, Frederic Aniere, a Parisian former realtor who cheerfully admits he knows little about tennis.
“Su-Wei doesn’t necessarily need someone to tell her a lot of what to do,” Aniere said after the match. “She knows exactly what to do in tennis. Of course we talk about tennis, but I am just there to give her some confidence, to have some good times together.”
Hsieh breaks opponents down with an infuriating game built on a funhouse assortment of soft spins, slices, chips and dinks. But she’ll mix it up by throwing in flat shots that are almost impossible to read because she hits her groundstrokes with both hands on the racket shaft. To fans of “beautiful” tennis — as it has been played by the likes of Justine Henin or, now, Roger Federer — Hsieh is the antithesis.
Opponents often embark on matches with Hsieh believing they can or need to hit their way through her defenses, when the key to success against such steady, inventive players almost always lies in a player’s ability to remain patient, focused and able to know just when to apply that useful power.
“I was kind of immature today,” Osaka said. “I went in thinking everything was on my racket. But, honestly, she has the ability to make winners when she wants to, as well. That was one of my main problems.”
That was a refreshingly frank analysis coming from such young a player. Osaka has plenty of time to figure it out — to find style proximate to that of her beleaguered, 37-year-old role model, Serena Williams.
The inability to finish this tournament is yet another setback in the ongoing comeback saga of the world’s most famous sporting mother. It might be a new, more ominous sign that things might never be what they were before Williams left the tour to give birth, not even for a few brief and shining months.
Her situation raises an intriguing question: Given where she is now, what would constitute success for her. A return to the top ranking? Winning another major? A tournament? Finishing a tournament, even?
“That’s a tricky question,” she said the other day. “I feel like with my career, I’ve had a tremendous amount of success. I think coming back from my situation, playing four, five tournaments, jumping into the top 10, is extremely successful.
“It’s just a step at a time. I have to force myself to take a step back and say, ‘You’re doing great, don’t be so hard on yourself.’ Just because my level of success is so much higher than what’s natural, I have to take these moments and say, ‘You’re doing great,’ encourage myself in a positive way, so I can get that success that I want to have since coming back from the baby.”
In other words, as far as Williams is concerned, the end of this story is: “… to be continued.”
So let’s leave it at that.