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    Monday, May 27, 2024

    Naomi Osaka Secures Hard-Fought Victory in French Open Opener

    The closer Naomi Osaka edged towards her first victory in a grand slam tournament in more than two years, the more she found herself unable to play with the freedom she craved. From 4-0 up in the third set of her French Open first-round match against Lucia Bronzetti, a match largely decided on her racket, Osaka’s nerves began to wreak havoc. She soon found herself on the verge of a crushing defeat.

    When she truly needed to step up, though, Osaka steadied herself and recovered. After three turbulent sets, she moved into the second round with a 6-1, 4-6, 7-5 victory.

    Despite the tight result, Osaka did demonstrate some periods of ­genuine quality against the world No 67. She was excellent in the ­opening set, serving well and ­crushing the ball with ease, then she established a 4-0 lead in the final set with ­similarly dominant play. But those positive moments were bookended by ­nervous, error-strewn periods as the 26-year-old’s feet became rooted to the ground and her errors missed the court by sizeable margins.

    To her credit, while trailing 4-5 in the final set after losing five successive games, Osaka steadied herself with some excellent serving and she rolled through the final three games to advance.

    The victory marks Osaka’s first win in a grand slam match since January 2022, when she reached the third round of the Australian Open. Afterwards, she said her desperation to finally advance past the first round was the primary reason for her nerves.

    “That was exactly the reason,” Osaka said. “I was in my head, ­thinking I didn’t win a match in ­Australia so I’d really love to win one here. Obviously that wasn’t a good train of thought. I kind of focused on it a bit too much instead of trying to play point by point, and I think towards the end I was able to erase that thought from my head. But I would love to not have to go through that rollercoaster again.”

    Since returning from maternity leave at the beginning of the year, Osaka has had to accept gradual progress rather than immediately blazing through the draws and ­re-establishing her level of old.

    This seemed to be another of those moments, another small step forward. Perhaps she will feel more ­composed the next time she is charged with closing out a grand slam match.

    During her press conference on Saturday, questions about the draw prompted a suspicious Osaka to ask, with a chuckle, that reporters not reveal any potential opponents beyond the first round. Now she knows. By beating Bronzetti, Osaka has done her part of the deal ahead of a potential second-round match against Iga Swiatek, the top seed and tournament favourite. Swiatek will open her tournament on Monday against Léolia Jeanjean, a qualifier from France.

    “Honestly, I didn’t really know [Swiatek was a potential opponent],” Osaka said. “But then after, I was like: ‘Why does everyone keep asking me about this draw?’ I knew that I was in the top half, so I was like, jokingly: ‘Well, it’s not like I’m playing Iga.’ Then everyone got quiet.

    “I’m honestly really excited. I watched her a lot when I was ­pregnant. I think it’s an honour to play her in the French Open, because she’s won more than once here. It’s like a very big honour and ­challenge for me.”

    While Osaka’s prospects of challenging Swiatek may be remote based on her opening performance, if the pair face each other she will at least have the benefit of playing against the world No 1 fully aware that the ­pressure will all be on the other side. It is a free hit, a chance for Osaka to impose herself and see where she stacks up against the best player in the world. But first, Swiatek must complete her part of the job.

    “[I’m] taking it as an experience and kind of knowing that I feel like I’m the underdog, and I think I thrive in those situations,” Osaka said. “So if I do play her, I’d be really excited to.”

    Jelena Ostapenko, the ninth seed, reached the second round with a 6-4, 7-5 victory against Jaqueline Cristian of Romania.


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