'Haunted' Naomi Osaka exits Wimbledon at first hurdle at hands of Yulia Putintseva

Naomi Osaka cut a haunted figure in her post-match press conference after losing to world no.39 Yulia Putintseva
Naomi Osaka cut a haunted figure in her post-match press conference after losing to world no.39 Yulia Putintseva
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It is the oldest of sayings in professional sport: getting to the top is the easy bit; it is staying there that is the hard part.

Naomi Osaka knows that only too well. At the age of 21, she has won the trophies that matter and she has been the world No.1 but on Monday it counted for nothing: she was dumped out of the first round at Wimbledon by Yulia Putintseva, the world No.39 from Kazakhstan, 7-6, 6-2.

From being on top of the world six months ago, she looks a haunted figure these days. She has not reached another final since winning the Australian Open in January and against Putintseva she looked nervous, unsure of what to do or when and, by the time it was all over, she just looked crushed.

As she faced the media to explain what had happened in her 96 minutes minutes on court, Osaka lasted just 11 questions and a handful of minutes (her answers were polite but extremely brief) before turning to the press conference moderator and saying quietly: “Can I leave? I feel like I'm about to cry.” And with that, she was off.

Her rise to the summit of the rankings mountain was swift and it was spectacular. She has only won three titles in her short career and two of them have been grand slams. When she won the second of those at the Australian Open, she also became the world No.1, a position she held until two weeks ago. In theory, all her Christmases had come at once. But it did not feel that way.

Now she was expected to win every week. Now she was expected to be the public face of women’s tennis. For a shy and introverted young woman, this was too much, too soon.

“Mentally it was way more stress and pressure than I could have imagined,” she said before the match. “I don't think there was anything that could have prepared me for that, especially since I'm kind of an overthinker.

“I think it's better for me now to be lower ranked, to be No. 2 here because the only upside is if you win the tournament, you're automatically No. 1. I don't have to think about defending the ranking or anything.”

That relief from the burden of being the best player on the planet clearly did not help her much yesterday. Putintseva is no great grass court player – she has never got beyond the second round in SW19 in five previous attempts. Then again, Osaka is a greenhorn on the green stuff, too with only two third round finishes to show for her visits to Wimbledon. She had also lost twice to the Kazakh in the past, most recently in Birmingham 10 days ago.

With her confidence in tatters and her mind fogged by pressure, Putintseva was the last woman Osaka wanted to see on the other side of the net. Everyone in the women’s locker room knows that Putintseva (known as Poots), all 5ft 4ins of her, is a warrior. A bit of a street fighter. Poots doesn’t give two hoots about her opponent’s reputation or status.

So what that the former world No.1 was 3-1 up in the first set. Poots broke back. What did it matter that the champion of the US and Australian Opens is that rare mixture of Serena Williams’s power and Maria Sharapova’s steely mental strength – Poots gave the No.2 seed no power to work with and drove the Japanese to distraction with her slice-and-dice tactics. And then there were times when Poots was just too good, plain and simple.

“I was trying to make it as more uncomfortable for her as possible. That's the only thing,” Putintseva said, beaming from ear to ear. “I was just trying to mix it up, trying to make it uncomfortable for her, trying to open the court whenever I can.”

As for Osaka, what would she do now? How had she bounced back from defeat in the past?

“The key for me was just having fun, I guess,” she said softly and sadly. “Like, learning how to have fun, kind of taking pressure off myself. I hope I can somehow find a way to do that.”

But until she can find a safe haven far away from the spotlight, and can find the time stay there for as long as she needs, Osaka seems unlikely to have much fun at all. And until she starts having fun again, the chances of her winning again seem very remote.