In A Tale Of Two Matches Within A Match, Osaka (Finally) Remembers She’s No. 1

Naomi Osaka (photo: Julien Crosnier / FFT)

PARIS, May 28, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

World No. 1 Naomi Osaka arguably played one of her worst sets of tennis in recent memory during her first-round match against 90th-ranked Anna Karolina Schmiedlova of Slovakia at Roland Garros on Tuesday afternoon. Osaka was bageled – 0-6 – thanks greatly to two double faults, 13 unforced errors and just nine total points won during the 22-minute opening set played amidst blustery, cool conditions on the rebuilt Court Philippe Chatrier. It was the first time that Osaka had ever played on the biggest show court at Stade Roland Garros. Her mother, who invited herself, was in attendance sitting in Osaka’s box. What more could go wrong?

“She was cold in every way,” said commentator Mary Carillo of the No. 1-ranked player, in handling play-by-play of Osaka’s match on Tennis Channel seen in the United States. It was also a comment that after the first set, Osaka, who was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, put on a newly-fashioned high-waisted Nike warm-up over her sleeveless top during the change over between the first and second sets to stay warm. (Later, she removed it in the third set when the sun came out.) Coupled with a brief rain interruption about 37 minutes into the match that sent the players off to a holding area, the change of weather seemed to help Osaka, who won the first three games of the second set as she regrouped and focused on remembering who she is: the top-ranked player in women’s tennis and the top seed at Roland Garros.

It worked – and she even earned the applause of her mother, too.

Osaka won in three sets, 0-6, 7-6 (4), 6-1, and avoided what would have been an upset of extremely tremendous proportions. She would have been the first World No. 1 to bow out of a major after becoming No. 1. Instead, the reigning U.S. Open and Australian Open champion continues her quest for a third consecutive Grand Slam title.

“For me, I think this is the most nervous I have ever been my entire life during a match,” said Osaka during her post-match press conference. “I think you could see that in the first set. I was literally not hitting any balls in the court.

“Today was weird because usually the nerves go away, but it kind of stayed the entire match. Then I just felt like it was a fight of willpower. Yeah, I managed to win in the end.”

Two points from defeat, Osaka fought off two chances that Schmiedlova had late in the second set while the Slovakian was serving for the match at 5-4 and, again, at 6-5, up a break of serve in both instances. Schmiedlova, who was playing a World No. 1 for the first time, stuttered with the finish line in sight, and Osaka, ever the opportunist, made her pay. Once Osaka won the second-set tie-break, 7-4, it was all over but the cursory hand shake at the end. In the third set, Osaka played disciplined tennis and maintained her composure – and used these qualities to her advantage. She finished with 10 service aces and 36 winners. Oh, sure, there were those pesky 38 unforced errors, but that will be something to improve upon before the next round.

“Nobody wants to lose in the first round of a Grand Slam, especially me,” said Osaka. “I feel like I’m thinking too much about the number next to my name right now, and instead of feeling free and having fun like I normally do in Grand Slams, which is something that I have learned from today.”

It will be a good learning tool for Schmiedlova, too, who has worked hard to move back into the Top 100 after dipping to the 300s two years ago.

“I think everybody saw that I was really close,” said Schmiedlova. “And it did hurt that I lose today because I had so many chances.

“She’s No. 1 in the world and amazing player. I admire her so much. I think I could have won today, but maybe next time.”

It was an important step for Osaka, who was forced to withdraw from two recent tournaments – Stuttgart and Rome – with an abdominal and hand injury, respectively. Today, she looked healthy, and after the abysmal first set, she remembered that she’s World No. 1 for a reason.

After one hour and 54 minutes, Osaka could finally flash a smile as she won on her first match-point opportunity and moved on to an interesting second-round meeting with two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka, who is into the second round of the French Open for the first time since 2015.

Victoria Azarenka next for Osaka

“Just the usual second round match,” Azarenka said with a hint of laughter during her post-match press conference. “It’s going to be exciting for me. I love to challenge myself against the best players.”

The 43rd-ranked Azarenka from Belarus outlasted Jelena Ostapenko, 6-4, 7-6 (4), early on Tuesday and the Latvian looked anything but the 2017 French Open champion. Over the course of their one hour and 45 minute match on Court Simonne Mathieu, the 39th-ranked Ostapenko double-faulted 17 times, and she and Azarenka combined for 13 service breaks. Now, Ostapenko is winless at Roland Garros since lifting the Suzanne Lenglen Cup two years ago in what seems like a distant memory. Her last victory here was against Simona Halep.

“She’s one of the players that you never know what’s coming, and she doesn’t really give a lot of rhythm,” said Azarenka. “So for the first round, that was something very dangerous for me. I think any win at the beginning gives you a little bit boost of confidence for sure.”

Defending champion Halep advances

Defending French Open champion Simona Halep, seeded third this year, was pushed to a third set by No. 47 Ajla Tomljanovic, the Croatian-born Australian, on Court Philippe Chatrier. However, a spirited Halep came on strong in the final set – never wavering while gaining strength and, importantly, confidence – and she advanced with a 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 victory that was completed in one hour and 35 minutes. It was Halep’s first match on Court Philippe Chatrier since winning the 2018 title.

“It was a great match, the level was great, and actually her level in the second set was really high,” said Halep after her victory. “I had to be focused more on myself to find out what I have to play better in the third set to be able to win.

“Of course, it was not easy because of the emotions, the pressure, but it’s always nice to go back on that court. So, I had nice emotions, and I’m really happy that I could win the match. Now, I can play the second round here.”

Playing in her 10th Roland Garros, the two-time finalist and one-time champion Halep won her eighth straight match and improved to 29-9 in Paris. Halep was solid with her first serve, placing 71 percent in play that yielded a 57 percent efficiency (33 of 57) in points won. She hit 19 winners, caused Tomljanovic to hit 30 unforced errors and broke her opponent seven times.

Next, Halep will oppose No. 87 Magda Linette of Poland, who advanced over No. 166 wild card Chloé Paquet of France, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2.

Around Roland Garros

• No. 11 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus advanced over No. 41 Dominika Cibulkova from Slovakia, playing in her 12th Roland Garros, 7-5, 6-1. Already, Sabalenka has improved upon her rookie performance of a year ago when she bowed in the first round. She hit 31 winners and outpointed Cibulkova 76-57. Next, Sabalenka will take on No. 51 Amanda Anisimova of the United States.

• No. 14 seed Madison Keys of the United States, a 2018 Roland Garros semifinalist, moved into the second round with a 6-1, 6-2 win over No. 70 Evgeniya Rodina of Russia. Keys won 79 percent (23 of 29) of her first-serve points and was impressive in garnering 55 percent (27 of 49) of her return-point opportunities. She finished with 28 winners. Next, Keys will face No. 132 Priscilla Hon of Australia, a wild card, who moved into the next round with a 3-6, 6-2, 6-1 win over No. 148 lucky loser Timea Babos of Hungary.

• No. 16 Wang Qiang of China defeated her compatriot, No. 45 Zheng Saisai, 6-1, 7-5, to move into the second around against No. 104 Iga Swiatek of Poland. Swiatek defeated French wild card Selena Janicijevic, 6-3, 6-0.

• No. 27 seed Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine, who reached the fourth round of Roland Garros last year, started well with a 6-2, 6-2 win over No. 77 Eugenie Bouchard of Canada, who was a 2014 semifinalist in Paris. Tsurenko overcame 20 unforced errors by hitting 16 winners and broke Bouchard’s serve five times during their 65-minute match on Court 1. Next, Tsurenko will face No. 76 Aleksandra Krunic of Serbia, who advanced when No. 61 Daria Gavrilova of Australia retired, with Krunic leading 6-3, 2-2.

• No. 29 seed Maria Sakkari of Greece needed just 55 minutes to advance over wild card Anna Tatishvili of the United States, 6-0, 6-1. Next she will face No. 42 Katerina Siniakova of the Czech Republic, who defeated No. 141 Elena Rybakina, a qualifier from Kazakhstan, 7-6 (5), 6-1.

• In an all-Russian battle out on Court 9, No. 117 Anna Blinkova defeated No. 65 Margarita Gasparyan, 6-3, 4-6, 8-6, to move into a second-round match against No. 24 seed Caroline Garcia of France.

• Qualifier Kurumi Nara of Japan, ranked No. 238, completed her suspended match from Monday and beat No. 105 Dalila Jakupovic of Slovenia, 7-5, 5-7, 6-3. Next, Nara has the gigantic task of facing three-time French Open champion Serena Williams, seeded 10th.

What they’re saying

• Caroline Garcia on whether she feels a lot is expected of her as the French No. 1: “I believe that the expectations from the outside world are still the same. Even though I’m a bit down in the ranking, it’s still the same. … But it’s not always easy sometimes to manage everything. You don’t necessarily know how you’re going to react. When you make mistakes you try to draw the lessons from them. This is what we have been trying to do since the beginning of the year. Things are improving.”

• Oft-injured Eugenie Bouchard of Canada on what she’s missed most about not competing: “Well, honestly, just performing in front of a crowd. At the end of the day, we’re entertainment, you know. So, seeing all the people out there and hearing a lot of them cheer for me is something that you can’t get anywhere else in life.”

What they’re tweeting

• George Bellshaw, tennis writer: “Naomi Osaka survives!”

• Christopher Clarey, New York Times tennis columnist on Naomi Osaka: “Naomi Osaka, who has modeled her career on Serena, has clearly decided to model her first-round French Open match this year on Serena’s first-round French Open match this year.”

Tuesday’s results

First round women’s singles
No. 1 N. Osaka, Japan, d. A.K. Schmiedlova, Slovakia, 0-6, 7-6 (4), 6-1
No. 3 S. Halep, Romania, d. A. Tomljanovic, Australia, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1
No. 24 C. Garcia, France, d. M. Barthel, Germany, 6-2, 6-4
No. 14 M. Keys, U.S., d. E. Rodina, Russia, 6-1, 6-2
V. Azarenka, Belarus, d. J. Ostapenko, Latvia, 6-4, 7-6 (4)
No. 11 A. Sabalenka, Belarus, d. D. Cibulkova, Slovakia, 7-5, 6-1
No. 27 L. Tsurenko, Ukraine, d. E. Bouchard, Canada, 6-2, 6-2
I. Swiatek, Poland, d. WC-S. Janicijevic, France, 6-3, 6-0
No. 22 B. Andreescu, Canada, d. LL-M. Bouzkova, Czech Republic, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4
M. Linette, Poland, d. WC-C. Paquet, France, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2
No. 29 M. Sakkari, Greece,  d. WC-A. Tatishvili, U.S., 6-0, 6-1
K. Muchova, Czech Republic, d No. 17 A Kontaveit, Estonia, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2
M. Puig, Puerto Rico, d. K. Flipkens, Belgium, 6-1, 7-5
Q-A. Blinkova, Russia, d. M. Gasparyan, Russia, 6-3, 4-6, 8-6
WC-P. Hon, Australia, d. LL-T. Babos, Hungary, 3-6, 6-2, 6-1
K. Siniakova, Czech Republic, d. Q-E. Rybakina, Kazakhstan, 7-6 (5), 6-1
Q-K. Nara, Japan, d. D. Jakupovic, Serbia, 7-5, 5-7, 6-3
A. Krunic, Serbia, d. D. Gavrilova, Australia, 6-3, 2-2, retired
I. Begu, Romania, d. L. Zhu, China, 6-1, 6-1
No. 16 Q. Wang, China, d. S. Zheng, China, 6-1, 7-5
A. Anisimova, U.S., d. WC-H. Tan, France, 6-3, 6-1
No. 21 D. Kasatkina, Russia, d. Q-J. Paolini, Italy, 6-2, 6-3