French Open 2019: World No 1 Naomi Osaka displays endless reserves of fighting spirit in comeback against Victoria Azarenka

Naomi Osaka is still some distance away from winning her third Grand Slam in a row, but in the first two outings, she has shown how strong she is mentally.

Deepti Patwardhan May 30, 2019 21:29:54 IST
French Open 2019: World No 1 Naomi Osaka displays endless reserves of fighting spirit in comeback against Victoria Azarenka
  • Naomi Osaka broke down during her 0-6, 7-6, 6-1 back-from-the-brink victory over Anna Karolina Schmieldlova in the opening round at Roland Garros on Tuesday

  • In her past two Grand Slam matches – the Australian Open final against Petra Kvitova and against Schmieldlova on Tuesday, Osaka had gone from teary-eyed to tear-away in a blink

  • Osaka is still some distance away from winning her third Grand Slam in a row, but in the first two outings, she has shown how strong she is mentally

A couple of days ago, Naomi Osaka had been left searching for ‘logical reasons’ for her nervous start to the French Open. The Japanese star listed them as, “First time playing a Grand Slam as No.1. Won the last two, so I kind of want to win this one really bad. I feel like I'm thinking too much about the number next to my name right now, instead of feeling free and having fun like I normally do in Grand Slams.”

The inevitable target on the back has been impossible to shake off for any Grand Slam women’s champion, other than Serena Williams, in recent times. Over 2017 and 2018, eight different women won the eight Grand Slam titles. Osaka bucked that trend early in 2019, when she became the first repeat winner since Williams’ French Open-Wimbledon double in 2015, by winning the Australian Open. Having taken over as the world No 1 after that title win in Melbourne, though, Osaka is feeling the heat.

French Open 2019 World No 1 Naomi Osaka displays endless reserves of fighting spirit in comeback against Victoria Azarenka

Japan's Naomi Osaka reacts after winning a point against Belarus' Victoria Azarenka during their women's singles second round match. AFP

The 21-year-old had broken down during her 0-6, 7-6, 6-1 back-from-the-brink victory over Anna Karolina Schmieldlova in the opening round at Roland Garros on Tuesday. Though there were no tears on Thursday, the nerves, like the ominous dark clouds above, still lurked when she took on former world No 1 Victoria Azarenka in a tough second round.

Osaka battled through another slow start to beat Azarenka 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 and keep her bid for a third successive major alive.

“I was lucky enough to play her twice before this and I knew she was playing really well. It was unfortunate that this was a second-round match but I am happy I won,” said the world No 1, who battled for two hours and 50 minutes, in the courtside interview.

It was always going to be an awkward match for the Japanese. Two-time Grand Slam champion Azarenka hasn’t quite hit the highs since she returned from the maternity leave in 2017, but the Belarussian seems to be back in fighting shape.

While Osaka was motoring towards the crowning glory at the Australian Open, Azarenka had left Melbourne Park in tears after her first-round defeat to Laura Siegemund. It’s been a tough road back for the Belarussian, who also fought, and won, a custody battle over her son Leo last year. “I've been through a lot of things in my life. Sometimes I wonder why I go through them,” she said after the Australian Open loss.

In the tune-up to the French Open, though, Azarenka had encouraging results – she reached the final in Monterrey and scored two wins over top-10 players (Karolina Pliskova in Stuttgart and Elina Svitolina in Rome) on clay. She knocked out 2015 champion Jelena Ostapenko in the French Open opening round in another statement victory.

More importantly, her relentless, fiery game is better suited to slow, high-bouncing clay than that of her rivals in the first two rounds – both Ostapenko and Osaka play aggressive, first-strike tennis.

And it looked like Azarenka’s low-risk tennis would reap the reward against Osaka, as she went into a 6-4, 4-2 lead. Osaka, who has never gone beyond the third round at the French Open, was struggling to find her hitting range, and had 15 unforced errors – to Azarenka’s six – in the opening set.

In her past two Grand Slam matches – the Australian Open final against Petra Kvitova and against Schmieldlova on Tuesday, Osaka had gone from teary-eyed to tear-away in a blink. Though things weren’t quite as dramatic against Azarenka, the Japanese player once again found her best, and calmest, tennis when pushed to the brink. Having fought from 2-4 down in the second set, she sealed it at 7-5 with a blistering backhand down the line.

While the highly-anticipated second-round contest had lived up to its billing, Azarenka soured things somewhat by taking an 11-minute bathroom break after losing the second set. The Belarussian is known in tennis circles for her win-at-any-cost sportsmanship and Azarenka’s prolonged absence drew sharp reactions from commentators and fans alike.

Across the court though, Osaka was unmoved. She continued her hitting rhythm, using her steady backhand to dictate points, and raced to a 5-1 lead in the decider. Azarenka would not go away so easily and tried to stage a comeback of her own, breaking Osaka’s serve and pulling the scoreline back to 3-5. The Belarussian pushed Osaka to another break point even at 5-3, but she couldn’t quite convert it. Osaka sealed the contest on second match point as a forehand return from Azarenka flew long.

The French Open is possibly the toughest title to win in tennis, given the physical and emotional stress it puts on the players. Osaka is still some distance away from winning her third Grand Slam in a row, but in the first two outings, she has shown how strong she is mentally and why she is in pole position to take over from Williams – whenever the great American decides to call it a day.

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