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Tennis

Osaka flirts with disaster before reaching French Open second round

Naomi Osaka won her first match on centre court at the 2019 French Open.
Naomi Osaka won her first match on centre court at the 2019 French Open. RFI/Pierre René-Worms

The final set of Naomi Osaka's first round match against Anna Karolina Schmiedlova on Tuesday was something of a waltz. The 21-year-old top seed from Japan claimed it 6-1. But for the hour or so that preceded it, the Slovakian had led her on a merry dance.

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However, the 24-year-old was unable to apply the coup de grace when serving for the match in the second set with a 5-4 lead and again at 6-5.

“At those points when I was serving. I think you could see why she's world number one and that she's a great player,” said Schmiedlova. “She started to play better and I had maybe a little bit too much respect or I got a little bit nervous.”

Osaka, who is seeking her third consecutive Grand Slam crown, took the match into the tiebreak and raced through that seven points to four.

Schmiedlova recovered her poise to hold serve in the opening game of the decider. But that was her last hurrah.

Fifty one minutes after she had served for the match for the first time, the world number 90 was lining up to save it. She failed. A forehand slapped into the tramlines was emblematic of her collapse from the point of triumph.

Desire

“I wanted to win,” said Schmiedlova. “I wanted to win some matches because I really like playing here in Roland Garros. And it was the toughest draw that I could get. But at least I can see that I can play against everyone. And Naomi’s also just a human and that I could beat her definitely.”

Schmiedlova launched into her illustrious adversary from the outset. She was a double break up in the blink of an eye and wrapped up the opener 6-0.

Normal standards appeared to have returned when Osaka surged into a 3-0 second set lead. But she faltered and was reeled in at 3-3.

At 4-4, Schmiedlova converted her second break point to take a 5-4 advantage. A sparsely populated centre court awaited an unexpected denouement as Osaka cried into her towel during the changeover.

Guts

That she survived, said Osaka, was down to resilience.

“It was the most nervous I’ve ever been in a match,” she admitted. “Usually the nerves go away but they stayed for the entire match and then I felt it was a fight of will power and I managed to win in the end.”

Osaka pinpointed an array of factors for her anxiety. “Playing as top seed at a Grand Slam for the first time," she explained. "I’ve won the last two Grand Slams so I want to win this one really bad and I have never played on centre court in Paris before. " She added: "I feel I have the thought of wanting to prove myself.”

That attitude appears to have deserted the 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko. She lost in straight sets to the former world number one Viktoria Azarenka. Last year Ostapenko also fell in the first round.

The 2018 champion Simona Halep avoided a similar fate. She dropped the second set to the unseeded Australian Ajla Tomljanovic. But Halep rallied to romp through the decider 6-1.

 

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