In what is the upset of the season so far, newly crowned world #1 Naomi Osaka lost 6-3 6-3 to struggling Kristina Mladenovic in Dubai. A rematch from the same round last year where Osaka breezed to a 6-2 6-2 victory. The script was flipped in that match, with Mladenovic being the tournament’s 8 seed while Osaka needed a wild card just to earn entry. This also made this win more surprising, with the opposite directions each player has gone in the year since. Mladenovic has fallen from world #11 at the end of 2017 to currently #67. Osaka has had an even more extreme flip, going from #68 at 2017’s end to currently holding the top spot. Mladenovic’s struggles were highlighted in 2019, losing her first match in each of the four tournaments she entered prior to Dubai. Osaka, meanwhile, entered the match 9-1 on the season, fresh off her Australian Open title and current holder of the last two Major championships.
After looking at the paths of each player, what happened on Tuesday? Not only did Mladenovic surprise simply by winning, but she breezed through the match in just over an hour. With all credit due to Mladenovic, Osaka likely was not in the match mentally. As a 21-year-old, she was playing her first match as the top player on the planet. She recently split with her coach Sascha Bajin. Another reason to suggest her problem was mental was her normally effective serving, she only landed 45% of her first serves, and hit just one ace and five double faults. Another explanation may simply be that tennis is a crazy game. Elite players on their day are able to challenge the best of the best, and large upsets happen all the time, though rarely of this magnitude.
Overall, fans of the exciting and likable Osaka have no need to worry. Last summer, she lost three straight matches leading up to the US Open and won the tournament. This is simply a small bump in the road. Mladenovic, on the other hand, could use this as the springboard she needs to make a charge at the top 10. After losing most of the matches she has played of late, beating a wWrld #1 may give her the confidence to become a regular contender again.