Naomi Osaka will plummet down the rankings after an early end to the defence of her Australian Open title but she heads home feeling positive about her future in the sport.
Osaka was beaten 4-6 6-3 7-6 (5) in the third round by a stunning performance from young American Amanda Anisimova at Melbourne Park.
When the rankings are updated a week on Monday, Osaka will find herself outside the top 80, but, after only returning to the match court this month following a break to take care of her mental health, what matters most to the four-time grand slam champion is perspective.
And Osaka found plenty to be happy about on that score, saying: “I fought for every point. I can’t be sad about that. I’m not God. I can’t win every match.
“So I just have to take that into account and know that it would be nice to win the tournament, but that’s really special and I can’t think of myself to try to win the grand slam at the start of the year every time.
“I feel like I grew a lot in this match. The last (grand slam) match that I played in New York, I think I had a completely different attitude so, of course I lost, but I’m happy with how it went.
“I just want to go into this year knowing that I’ll play the whole year and I’ll just have the greatest attitude ever. I’ll fight for every point. Even if I win or lose, I’ll just go off the court knowing that I tried the hardest that I could, and there is no way that anyone can expect anything more from me.”
The Japanese star will not be losing any sleep over her ranking, saying with a smile: “If I’m not (seeded) at slams, I think the other people that I’m playing against would be more worried about it than I am.”
This was one of the best matches of the tournament between two of the crispest hitters in the game.
Osaka was the more composed in the opening set, but 20-year-old Anisimova responded brilliantly in the second and the decider was nip and tuck throughout.
Osaka brought up two match points at 4-5, but Anisimova saved them both impressively and then played a superb deciding tie-break, clinching victory with an ace and dropping her racket to the court in stunned delight.
A prodigious junior talent, Anisimova reached the French Open semi-finals as a 17-year-old but had struggled since the death of her father and coach Konstantin later in 2019.
She is ranked only 60th in the world but is unbeaten in 2022 having won the warm-up title in Melbourne and showed here that she remains one of the brightest prospects in the game.
She certainly earned in fan in Osaka, who said: “It’s exciting. Not the loss itself, but the person I lost to, because it’s showing the growth of tennis. I feel like now I’m in this position where, if I lose to someone, it might make a headline, but I also think it kind of grows more superstars.”
Anisimova was thrilled with her accomplishment, saying: “I just want to soak in this moment. I’m just extremely happy. It was an amazing match. It was very close. There were a bit of nerves, and to play Naomi for the first time, it’s unreal.”
A potential fourth-round meeting between Osaka and world number one Ashleigh Barty had been highlighted as soon as the draw was made, but now it is the Australian hero who will have to try to stop Anisimova.
Barty was in big trouble against the American in the French Open semi-finals in 2019 before turning things around, and she said: “I remember that I learned a lot from that moment. That was a turning point in my career.
“Obviously it feels like it’s a lifetime ago, but some of those memories are still really vivid. Without a doubt we will take that and use that experience, use those feelings and those emotions as best we can come Sunday.”
Barty has been untroubled so far and defeated big-hitting Italian Camila Giorgi 6-2 6-3.
Two-time former champion Victoria Azarenka has also breezed through the draw so far, dropping just nine games in three matches.
The 2012 and 2013 champion is having her best run in Melbourne for six years and was in excellent form in beating long-time top-10 star Elina Svitolina 6-0 6-2.
Azarenka next faces fourth seed Barbora Krejcikova, who recovered from a set and a break down to defeat another French Open champion in Jelena Ostapenko 2-6 6-4 6-4.
Krejcikova was unhappy to receive a warning for taking too long over a bathroom break – a rule introduced following the furore at the US Open that surrounded Stefanos Tsitsipas’ lengthy departures from the court.
Another very tight contest saw eighth seed Paula Badosa defeat young Ukrainian Marta Kostyuk 6-2 5-7 6-4.
Badosa next faces a resurgent Madison Keys, who won the WTA Tour title in Adelaide last weekend and moved through to the last 16 by winning a deciding tie-break against Wang Qiang.
Fifth seed Maria Sakkari eased to a 6-4 6-1 victory over Veronika Kudermetova and will face Jessica Pegula next.