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Osaka wants to learn to slide like the others
Taking a look at why Osaka can struggle on clay
Naomi Osaka is not *bad* on clay.
She had an 82% clay win rate in 2019, which was the last time she played a mostly full season on the red stuff, and there have been multiple performances which show positive signs for her future on this slower surface. She is also still in the relatively early days of her career, with generous amounts of time still to improve.
But her results on clay do pale significantly in comparison to her world-beating hard court history. She’s never beaten a top 20 player on clay, she’s hasn’t been past the 3rd round at Roland Garros, and today she lost in the 2nd round of Madrid to Karolína Muchová (who, to be clear, played a very good match and is a more natural clay courter).
Osaka, to her credit, is perfectly aware of her need to improve. After the loss today she gave an introspective and impressive interview:
‘I want to learn how to slide how she (Muchová) does.’
“I'm not sure how other players play, but I'm learning that on clay I can't afford to not swing through every ball, because that automatically takes me from offence to defence. And maybe if I start being able to move better I can risk starting to play on defence, but as of right now I think I should be the aggressor.”
"I would say I have a pretty positive outlook on it, because for me my biggest things today, I know I can't control the outcome of the match but I can control my attitude and how hard I fought. For me, I thought I did that really well."
For context, Muchová counts clay as a more natural surface:
“In Czech since kid I was actually practicing on clay, so I'm kind of used to it. Yeah, now we play more on hard court, but I always look forward to play on clay and I like to slide and all these things. Yeah, it's kind of natural for me.”
This presents Osaka with an interesting problem, and that second quote (in bold) was particularly rich in information. Until her movement becomes more natural on clay she’s seeking to compensate with all out offence. But recent history, and today’s match, would suggest that it’s her offence on clay that is being blunted most significantly, either forcing her to play defensively or committing errors. Tying a concrete cause and effect to a solution could therefore be tough.
Let’s have a look at why and how.
Hard ➡️ Clay
Almost all players find it slightly tougher to win free and/or easy service points on clay than on hard court. The physics of the bounce makes this mostly inevitable. But Osaka seems to struggle more than most elite players when making the transition. If we take a look at the WTA top 10 and their tour level serve performance averages on hard and clay (I subbed in Świątek for Andreescu because Andreescu’s clay sample is too small), we get this:
1st Serve —
2nd Serve —
As you can see, on 1st serve especially, Osaka’s serve performance is taking a significantly bigger hit when she moves from hard courts to clay than any of her elite peers. A 7% swing in the wrong direction.
Appropriately, against Muchová today, she won just 65% of her 1st serve points, bang on her clay court average, and 7% lower than her hard court avg. For comparisons sake when it comes to this matchup in particular, the last (and only) time Osaka and Muchová played on a hard court, Osaka got the W with a very impressive 81% of her first serve points won.
There were a few moments in today’s match, in the third set at 1-3 especially, where Osaka will know she should have done better with her returns. A missed opportunity here and there. But it was the serve dominance, or rather the lack of it, which made up much of her troubles today. Among the elite women at the moment, Osaka’s differential between 1st serve dominance on hard courts and 1st serve dominance on clay courts is the biggest. And given how devastating her 1-3 shot aggression usually is, making up the foundations of much of her recent success (4 slam titles) on the hard courts of Australia and New York, it’s not surprising that she’s struggling, relatively speaking, on the clay considering the above.
I picked out a few Osaka 1st serve points from today to illustrate this:
Muchová returned very well today, especially off Osaka’s 1st serve. Here’s three excellent 1st serve returns in one game:
And again to break in the 3rd set:
All four of the above points feature Osaka having pretty much no serving advantage. In fact Muchová actually sets up better return +1’s than Osaka sets up serve +1’s. These are serves that likely have a better chance of either drawing an error from the returner, or setting up a short ball, on a hard court. But time and time again today, Muchová forced Osaka into defensive baseline positions that aren’t necessarily that familiar for her in the 1-3 shot range on serve.
To be clear, it’s unfair to draw too many conclusions from today’s result. Muchová played excellent clay court tennis, and this isn’t an easy matchup for Osaka on any surface. But Osaka talking about the need to swing harder and be more offensive on the clay, while she’s still working out how to move naturally, was still really interesting. While her purple patch to turn around the 2nd set suggests that this direction can definitely work (especially on return of serve), I’m wondering whether she’ll also think about mixing in different types of offence.
Her serve today was as powerful as ever but not consistently hitting spots close to the lines that would make the returners life harder. And there weren’t many signs of her mixing in big kick serves out wide to try to force Muchová to play her return from uncomfortably high positions, to keep her guessing. Perhaps this loss will therefore prompt Osaka to think about some more variation on serve while also taking more risks on her 1st serve placement.
Along the same lines, Osaka’s groundstrokes were powerful today, but very linear. Most of the better clay courters on tour can redirect linear pace expertly these days, which will likely continue to force Osaka to do much of the running unless she can successfully and consistently hit through slow clay courts with plenty of winners. It will be interesting to see whether Osaka takes a leaf from all the most successful and offensive clay courters, in their greater use of angles to open up the court, perhaps sacrificing some of her power for precision.
TL;DR summary: Osaka’s 1st serve on clay isn’t giving her the same ease of offence on her follow up shots, as it does on hard courts. How she figures out how to close that performance gap (in line with her peers) is an interesting problem, with many different answers that will probably take some trial and error.
Osaka certainly has the talent, ability, and mindset to do all of the above, and her journey to become better on clay, in both movement and offence, is going to be fascinating to watch.
She gets another opportunity in Rome in just a weeks time.
If you have any questions or thoughts about what you just read you can leave a comment below and I’ll answer it. No question is dumb.
All issues are free this month during launch (until Rome), but if you want to make sure you don’t miss them you can subscribe here. The Racquet goes out twice a week, a (free) topical piece every Thursday and a (paid) match analysis piece every Sunday for final’s.
// Looking for more?
Analysis of the Tsitsipas vs Rublev Monte Carlo Final: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/monte-carlo-final-tsitsipas-vs-rublev
Daniil Medvedev Does *Not* Like The Clay - Do Flatter Hitters Have it Harder On Clay? https://theracquet.substack.com/p/daniil-medvedev-does-not-like-the
The Modernisation Of Tennis: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/the-modernisation-of-tennis
Federer, Nadal & Djoković Rivalry Impact: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/federer-nadal-and-djokovic-make-a
Tennis’ Identity Crisis: The Umpire Problem https://theracquet.substack.com/p/tennis-identity-crisis
Analysis of the Djoković Medvedev Australian Open Final: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/the-racquet-micro-not-macro-match
Analysis of the Nadal Medvedev US Open Final Final: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/the-racquet-the-5th-set