WIMBLEDON, England -- Just moments after being stunned in the first round at Wimbledon, Naomi Osaka sat in front of a packed room, filled with members of the media from around the world, and answered as many questions as she could, speaking so quietly one had to strain to hear, and with tears welling up in her eyes.
After a few moments of what appeared to be sheer agony, she interrupted a question about the pressures of her newfound fame. She turned to the moderator seated next to her and said, "Can I leave? I feel like I'm about to cry."
And with that, she walked out, leaving those in the room with an uncomfortable silence and even more questions than they had come in with.
The life and career of a professional athlete is full of highs and lows, but maybe no one has exemplified this more extremely than Osaka over the past year. She beat Serena Williams in a highly controversial match to tearfully claim her first Grand Slam title (and the first for any Japanese player) at the U.S. Open in September and followed it up with a dominant victory at the Australian Open to secure the No. 1 ranking in January. It seemed like tennis' future had arrived, complete with a bouncy ponytail and a quirky sense of humor, and she suddenly was everywhere. The endorsements came pouring in, as did the TV appearances and magazine covers.
However, it was abundantly clear all was not perfect in Osaka's world. She fired her coach, Sascha Bajin, just weeks after her win in Melbourne and made vague comments about their split and her desire to find happiness. Since then, the 21-year-old has struggled on the court, advancing just once to a semifinal (at Stuttgart in April) and falling in the third round at the French Open -- marking the earliest exit by a woman in her first major appearance as the top-ranked player since Ana Ivanovic in 2008.
Considering the talk of a potential "Naomi Slam" following her second straight win in Australia just months ago, her shocking loss on the first day of play at the All England Club feels particularly inexplicable. In fact, Osaka became just the fourth woman in Open Era history to lose an opening-round match at Wimbledon while ranked as a top-two seed.
Facing Yulia Putintseva, a two-time French Open quarterfinalist who is currently ranked No. 39, on Centre Court, Osaka started strong and took a 3-1 lead but ultimately lost the set in a hard-fought tiebreak. Putintseva had won their previous two meetings, including last month on grass in Birmingham, but based on Osaka's play in the second set, one might assume the two had never met. She looked clueless at times, and had no answers for Putintseva's diverse game and shot selection. She had 38 unforced errors on the day, and she looked decidedly less confident and more consumed by nerves with every lost point.
"She mixes the ball up really well," said Osaka during her curtailed news conference. "I mean, I just don't think I played that well. But I wasn't surprised because I've played her, like, twice already."
Losing the fifth game in the second set following a challenged call by Putintseva, to trail 2-3, Osaka took her seat during the changeover and sat in a rigid stillness staring directly ahead with an icy expression. When time was called, she remained seated for several more moments before finally making her way back to the court. For a brief moment, it seemed as if she had almost willed herself back, and she held advantage for the game before then dropping the next three points, hitting the last one into the net and looking dejectedly up toward the sky.
She seemed to have no fight left in her, and Putintseva easily won the next two games for the match. After the two met at the net, Osaka quickly grabbed her bag and headed off the court. Putintseva was given a standing ovation by the shocked crowd, and she seemed to soak in the moment that everyone had seemingly assumed would be Osaka's.
There are countless possible reasons for Osaka's recent woes, and presumably many will be speculated about in the coming days, but she herself offered few clues. When asked about her coaching change, she said firmly, "I don't think it's related at all." When asked about her young age as the source of her inconsistency, she said, "I wouldn't blame my age on anything." When asked if it was particularly difficult to play an opponent who had just beaten her, she said, "How hard is it not to have that in my head? Very hard. I don't know how to answer that."
If she knows the source for her current issues, she is certainly isn't sharing it right now.
Of course, it's not the first time the top women's seeds have struggled at Wimbledon. During the 2018 tournament, all of the top five seeds and nine of the top 10 were eliminated by the end of the first week. Grass can be a difficult surface for many, especially considering how short the season is, and players frequently talk about not feeling properly prepared. But all of that likely offers little solace to Osaka as she turns her attention to the hardcourt portion of the season, which she dominated last year.
So for now, tennis fans are left pondering what happens next for the two-time Grand Slam champion and sudden superstar. Will she be able to return to championship form in time to defend her title in Queens? Can she rediscover her confidence and focus, which she showed in droves when taking on her idol Serena Williams in front of a less-than-supportive crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium, during the lead-up events? Osaka herself didn't even seem certain on Monday afternoon.
"I don't know. There are answers to questions that you guys ask that I still haven't figured out yet."
She will want to find those answers, sooner rather than later.