Naomi Osaka’s nightmare run continues: How big a setback is the Cincy defeat ahead of the US Open?

Naomi Osaka looking down

Naomi Osaka’s struggles continue with the four-time Grand Slam winner now 2-5 in her last seven matches as another below-par display against Zhang Shuai at the Western & Southern Open saw her crash out in the first round.

This is far from the Osaka who won four majors between September 2018 and January 2021 with her confidence appearing to be at an all time low.

The former world No 1 produced too many unforced errors and struggled to really give Zhang too much to think about with her poor return game. The Chinese player capitalised and won 6-4, 7-5 in one hour and 14 minutes on Centre Court in Ohio.

Osaka got off to a nightmare start and never really recovered as she was broken in the opening game of the match. She only had one break point opportunity in the set in game six, but Zhang saved it and then served it out a couple of games later.

Zhang then broke in game three of the second set before Osaka – who made 29 unforced errors over the two sets – had a glimmer of hope as she broke back in game 10, but her joy was short-lived as lost her serve again in the next game.

Zhang will face Ekaterina Alexandrova in the second round after the Russian also caused an upset of her own on Monday as she defeated 13th seed Leylah Fernandez 6-4, 7-5.

“It’s always tough to pay a really good friend,” Zhang said after making it 3-3 in her head-to-head with the Japanese player. “Naomi is amazing but she didn’t have the best day today.”

Osaka picked up an Achilles injury at the French Open and she only returned at the Silicon Valley Classic at the beginning of August while she retired with a back injury from the Canadian Open last week.

With the loss, coming after a first-round exit in Toronto and a second round defeat at the Silicon Valley Classic, Osaka has slipped to outside the top 40 of the WTA Rankings and won’t be seeded for the US Open.

The 24-year-old is 44th in the projected rankings and this week’s tournament in Cincinnati is the cutoff date for the seeding ahead of the final Grand Slam of the year at Flushing Meadows.

It will be the first time since 2017 that two-time US Open champion Osaka is not seeded in New York, but she will be the first to admit that her form has dropped off alarmingly over the past year.

Her last title was the 2021 Australian Open and she has reached only one final since then, this year’s Miami Open in April where she lost 6-4, 6-0 against world No 1 Iga Swiatek. Since the Miami defeat, the Japanese star is 2-5, having lost in the first round at Roland Garros, Toronto and now Ohio.

Being unseeded at Flushing Meadows leaves her in danger of drawing one of the big guns early on.