Another close call for Naomi Osaka at French Open
Thursday, May 30, 2019 | 10:19 PM
PARIS — Naomi Osaka screamed “Oh, my God!” after one shanked shot. Mouthed something and clasped her hands together, as if praying, after another. There were plenty of deep sighs and exaggerated eyerolls, too.
The No. 1-seeded Osaka got off to a terrible start at the French Open again, never masking her frustration. After some slip-ups near the end, Osaka also prevailed again, displaying the grit and groundstrokes that just won’t let her lose during what’s become a 16-match Grand Slam winning streak.
Osaka trailed by a set and a break Thursday against former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka in the second round at Roland Garros, before coming all the way back to win an entertaining matchup 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 and prolong her bid for a third consecutive major championship.
“I have this mindset that I feel like I can win if it gets down to the wire. Like, if I have to break a person, I feel like I have the ability to do that,” Osaka said. “So I probably shouldn’t wait until the last minute.”
In the first round, Osaka not only dropped the opening set, but did so by a 6-0 score.
This time, Osaka ceded the first four games against Azarenka and was responsible for their match’s initial seven unforced errors.
“Technically, like, she kind of killed me in the first set,” Osaka said, “and I just kept trying to find a way to stay positive.”
Defending champion Simona Halep required that same sort of resolve to get through her own test, blowing a big lead in the second set and a trio of match points before holding on to beat 87th-ranked Magda Linette, 6-4, 5-7, 6-3.
Halep, who said afterward she felt a “little bit sick” and plans to “sleep all day tomorrow,” was up a set and 5-3 in the second before dropping four games in a row and getting broken twice while serving for the match.
Neither Osaka nor Halep managed to put on the sort of solid performance seen from Serena Williams — barely bothered during a 6-3, 6-2 victory over qualifier Kurumi Nara — or top-seeded man Novak Djokovic, also a straight-set winners.
Azarenka sought to control points with deep, attacking strokes and by going after Osaka’s backhand side.
“I played very smart. I really played the right spots,” Azarenka said. “I was doing everything that I was supposed to do. And, especially, moving well and pushing her back.”
Azarenka knows a thing or two about how to perform on the sport’s biggest stages: She won two titles at the Australian Open, reached two finals at the U.S. Open and was a semifinalist at both Wimbledon and, back in 2013, the French Open.
She is currently ranked 43rd, though, on account of missing time over the past few seasons while pregnant and then dealing with a custody issue involving her son.
So what, in terms of talent and tenacity, could have passed for a late-in-the-proceedings showdown at a major was held, instead, in Week 1, with the temperature barely above 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15 Celsius) and the occasional raindrop.
When Azarenka sprinted for a cross-court forehand winner that closed a 15-stroke exchange, she led 4-2 in the second set after 77 minutes.
They would play for more than 1½ additional hours, and Azarenka certainly had opportunities to edge even farther ahead, such as when she had a break point to go up 5-2 and serve for the victory but netted a forehand. Or the three times she was one point from leading 5-3 but got broken there with her second double-fault of the game.
It was Azarenka’s serve that faltered down the stretch. It also was Osaka’s top-notch returning that contributed to a key stretch in which she grabbed 9 of 11 games.
“She has, obviously, a lot of confidence,” Azarenka said.
Which Osaka should, of course, given that she won the U.S. Open in September and the Australian Open in January and is trying to become the first woman in tennis history to collect her first three Slam trophies in a row.
“She’s very powerful. She’s very explosive,” Azarenka said. “Her shots are pretty heavy. She can hit both sides, pretty even. She has a big serve, and she’s consistent. … And proving that she deserves to be where she’s at right now.”
All of which is true.
And all of which made it fascinating, then, to hear Osaka describe her attitude going into the match.
“Today I kind of felt like a challenger,” she said. “Like, I know she went to the semis here before, so obviously she has a lot more experience here,” said the 21-year-old Osaka, who has never been past the third round in Paris but is 9-1 on clay in 2019 after entering the season with a 9-11 mark on the slow surface. “She won Grand Slams and she was No. 1 way before I was. I’m still kind of new at this.”
New at it, maybe. Good at it, definitely.