Naomi Osaka has talked about how hard it can be for her to decide whether to pull the trigger on her return of serve.
“Do it. Don’t do it. Do it. Don’t do it,” she thinks to herself as the ball comes toward her.
Usually, it should be obvious by now, she does it. She steps a few feet inside the baseline, aims for a corner, and snaps off a quick, compact, power-packed stroke. The result is, as often as not, a blazing winner.
We’ve known how good Osaka’s return is for at least a year now, but it’s hard to remember a match in which it played a more important role than it did in her 6-4, 6-2 win over Danielle Collins on Monday night at Indian Wells.
It began early, when Collins couldn’t find her first serve; she made just 42 percent of them in the first set. That meant Osaka could do what she loves to do more than anything else: Move as close to the service line as possible for the second ball, and take her cuts. Collins managed to hang on through eight games, but two Osaka returns at 4-4 turned the match in her favor for good. Down 40-15, she cracked a forehand return winner and a backhand return winner, and eventually broke with another forehand winner.
When Osaka broke again early in the second set, Collins called out her coach, Pat Harrison. In their sideline chat, focused specifically, and not surprisingly, on how to counter Osaka’s return. His advice was to kick the first ball in, so she didn’t have to hit as many second serves; but if she did have to hit a second serve, she should try to slice it and keep it low, so Osaka couldn’t tee off on the ball. Osaka’s return had forced Collins and her coach to rethink everything that she would normally do with her serve.
Alas, there were no adjustments that were going to save Collins on this night. Osaka, who was playing with total focus and near-total positivity throughout, wore the American down in the second set—not with steadiness, but with relentless, first-ball pace. Osaka hit 29 winners to 21 errors, won 73 percent of first-serve points, broke four times, and faced just one break point herself. Collins is well-known for her own power from the ground, but Osaka, with her serve and return, consistently beat her to the punch.
Is Osaka’s return the most disruptive shot in the game? It’s in the conversation. Her opponents can’t make mistakes with their serves and expect to survive; knowing that alone puts them under a lot of pressure. Belinda Bencic will be the next woman to have to face it.