MADRID, Spain - Naomi Osaka may not leave the Mutua Madrid Open with the World No.1, but she does leave with her health intact and four more tough matches on clay under her belt. And as recent history has shown, the 21-year-old knows how to rebound from a tough loss.
The World No.1 came within two points of securing her second consecutive clay semifinal on Thursday, before No.18 Belinda Bencic - herself in the midst of a tremendous season - came back from 3-5 down to win 3-6, 6-2, 7-5 in the Mutua Madrid Open quarterfinals. The win was Bencic's second over Osaka this season, having ended Osaka's Indian Wells title defense in March. It was Osaka's first loss to a Top 20 opponent this season.
"She played really good points," Osaka told reporters when asked about the turnaround in the final set. "I can't necessarily say it was all on me. When you play against a good player, you have to expect that they are going to play great at times, too.
"Of course, I feel like I was negative on myself this match, but I kind of tried to fix it in the third set."
The match was a riveting clash between two of the big stars of 'Generation '97'. Despite their high-successful season starts on the hardcourts, neither woman came into the clay season with high expectations. Clay is the least favored surface for both Osaka and Bencic, though with their success so far this year, that may be changing quickly.
Earlier in the week, Osaka said clay was quickly becoming her second favorite surface behind hardcourts.
"I think I got more wins this year than I have the entire season last year so that is definitely a good thing," Osaka said earlier in the week. She is now 5-1 on clay this season compared to going 5-4 over the entire season last year.
"For me, I just wanted to grow comfortable on clay and I think I have. So it is looking good for the French. And honestly all I want to do is have fun and I think I'm capturing that spirit again."
Things were a little less for Osaka against Bencic. A win would not only give her some much-desired revenge for her loss at Indian Wells, but it would secure the No.1 ranking, which is now under threat by No.3 Simona Halep. Into the semifinals to play Bencic, the Romanian can now overtake Osaka if she wins her third Madrid title. If Halep falls short, Osaka will remain at No.1.
Osaka admits she couldn't keep her thoughts from swirling as the match got tighter in the final games.
"In the first set I was just really focused and positive, and then in the second set, I just kept thinking about all the mistakes I was making," Osaka said. "And in the third set I tried to replicate what I was doing in the first set and it was working for a bit and then I started dwelling on my mistakes again."
"Today was different from normal because when I made the mistake, all I could think about was how important the point was and how could I let myself make such a mistake. Normally, I just go to the next point and try to learn from what I did wrong in the point that I missed.
"Today, it was a drama, so much drama in my head. I don't know what was going on. Normally, I'm able to move on and just concentrate on the next point."
"I think I was just thinking about too many things. Like, I wanted to win this match so much. Of course I wanted to win the Australian Open and the US Open, but for me, I wanted to win this match more because she beat me already before and I just didn't want to lose twice in a row.
"And also people have been telling me if I get to the semis here, of course I can stay No. 1. So, I wanted to do that and I was thinking about that while I was playing, which wasn't necessarily a good thing."
"I was thinking about the ranking for a while and I know I tell you about guys I don't really care about rankings, but honestly, I would love to play the French as No. 1 because I have never played a Grand Slam seeded No. 1. And in these past few weeks there is a big difference between No.1 and No.2. I play the best when I'm calm and today I wasn't calm today so that is the biggest thing I can learn."
Despite the loss, Osaka says she will take the positives out of her Madrid campaign, which came after a semifinal run in Stuttgart. Osaka started her Madrid tournament unsure if she would be able to serve well after picking up an abdominal injury in Stuttgart. She battled hard to earn good wins over Dominika Cibulkova, Sara Sorribes Tormo - in what was the longest match of Osaka's career at 2 hours and 35 minutes - Aliaksandra Sasnovich, and the narrow defeat to Bencic.
"I mean, all in all, I'm really happy because I wasn't sure if I could serve in the first match and I was able to and that was my biggest concern coming into it," Osaka said.
"I wanted to play this tournament and I'm going to play Rome, too, so there's a lot of happy things to take from this because I lost in the first round of Madrid last year so anything is an improvement, honestly."
Osaka's next tournament is the Internazionali BNL d'Italia next week in Rome, where she is the top seed.