1, not done: Osaka avoids French Open upset; Azarenka next

The wind was swirling, Naomi Osaka’s shots were flying everywhere except where she wanted and her debut as the No. 1 seed at a Grand Slam tournament was not going well. Not well at all.

In the first set of her first match at the 2019 French Open, Osaka didn’t even manage to grab a game. How bad was it? Her opponent had zero winners of her own in that set, because every point came via an error off Osaka’s racket. In the second set, Osaka was just two points from bidding adieu to Roland Garros.

And yet, somehow, Osaka held it together enough to work her way back into things, overcome all of those many mistakes and stretch her winning streak at majors to 15 matches by eventually emerging to beat Anna Karolina Schmiedlova of Slovakia 0-6, 7-6 (4), 6-1.

“I can see that I can play against everyone — and she’s also just a human,” the 90th-ranked Schmiedlova said, “and that I could beat her, definitely.”

Clay has never been Osaka’s best surface; her power-based style is more suited to hard courts, such as those at the U.S. Open, which she won last September, or the Australian Open, which she won in January to become the first tennis player from Japan to be ranked No. 1.

Her only first-round exit in 13 appearances at majors came at the French Open two years ago. The only 6-0 Grand Slam set she has lost came Tuesday.

Yet after having a career record of 9-11 on clay entering this season, she had been 7-1 on the slow stuff in 2019. She talked about feeling more and more comfortable on the surface and assured everyone that the abdominal and thumb injuries she’d dealt with in recent weeks were no longer any issue.

But nothing seemed right at the outset against Schmiedlova, who has never been past the third round at a major and is now 6-15 in openers.

Schmiedlova’s first 30 points came via 18 unforced errors and 12 forced errors by Osaka.

In other action on Day 3, 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro played Grand Slam tennis for the first time since fracturing his right kneecap and moved into the second round at Roland Garros by beating Nicolas Jarry 3-6, 6-2, 6-1, 6-4.

“My main goal is still the knee, my health. And I’m looking forward to (being) 100 percent in the second part of the year,” said the No. 8-seeded del Potro, the runner-up to Novak Djokovic at last year’s U.S. Open. “Once I get in good shape again, I can be focused on the result, you know, in different tournaments, different surfaces. That’s what I want to think about — not only my knee or my wrist or whatever.”

Another top man, No. 5 Alexander Zverev, continued his pattern of needing five sets to advance in Paris, struggling before edging John Millman 7-6 (4), 6-3, 2-6, 6-7 (5), 6-3 in 4 hours, 8 minutes. A year ago in Paris, Zverev needed to win three consecutive matches that went the full five sets to get to his first Grand Slam quarterfinal.

“I’m through,” Zverev said, “and that’s all that matters.”

Osaka needed 25 minutes to claim a game as she began her bid for a third consecutive major title.

She’ll probably want to play better in her next match, against two-time Australian Open champion and former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka.

“It’s going to be exciting for me,” said Azarenka, who eliminated 2017 French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko 6-4, 7-6 (4). “I love to challenge myself against the best players.”

Osaka seemed to be in better shape early in the second set, up 3-0 and finding her groove.

That’s when the day’s off-and-on rain returned briefly in the form of sprinkles. Spectators popped open umbrellas and the players took a bit of a break, first draping orange tournament towels over themselves while waiting on their sideline seats, then heading off court for about five minutes.

In all, the delay was less than 10 minutes — the drops were so scarce, play continued elsewhere — so there was no warmup when they returned. The respite served Schmiedlova better: She suddenly produced her very first winner of the entire match with a 96 mph (155 kph) serve to hold and get within 3-1, then took the next two games, too, to make it 3-all.

When Osaka got broken to trail 6-5 in the second set because of yet another mistake, she wheeled around to look at her box and display a sarcastic thumbs-up.

That allowed Schmiedlova to serve for the match again — she already had failed to close it out at 5-4. At 30-15, she was two points from pulling off what would have been only the second first-round upset of the women’s No. 1 seed in French Open history. But she couldn’t close it out. Osaka wouldn’t let her.

“Not easy for my head,” Schmiedlova said later.

article continue underneath video

 

There were four other moments in that game when Osaka was two points from defeat. Never happened.

In the ensuing tiebreaker, Osaka was dominant, and when her cross-court forehand was too much to handle, giving her that set, she looked at her box again, this time with a pumping clenched left fist.

“You could see,” Schmiedlova said, “that she’s No. 1, there.”

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