Japan's Osaka overcomes nerves, ousts defending champ
New York (AFP)
Japanese teen Naomi Osaka first conquered her shaky nerves and then crushed defending champion Angelique Kerber 6-3, 6-1 Tuesday to reach the second round of the US Open.
The 19-year-old daughter of a Haitian father and Japanese mother captured her first victory over a top-10 opponent by dispatching the German sixth seed, but first she had to fight off bad memories.
A year ago on the same Arthur Ashe Stadium court, Osaka squandered a 5-1 lead in the final set and lost to American Madison Keys 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (7/3) in a third-round match.
"When I stepped on the court and I heard all the people and I saw how big the stadium was, I got a little bit freaked out, but I tried to hold it in," Osaka said.
"I never played a defending champion and also, I was playing on Ashe again, which wasn't really the best memory for me."
Osaka dominated former world number one Kerber, but as the match creeped closer to conclusion, a nagging thought popped up -- "I really hope I don't do what I did last year."
She didn't. Osaka polished off Kerber, the first defending US Open champion to crash out in her opener since Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2005, and set aside a bad memory in the proces.
"I felt the same type of nerves come up 4-1 in this match, so I wanted to tell myself just to keep playing how I was playing and not let the nerves get over me as much as last year," Ozaka said.
"The experience last year helped me this year. I feel like I know that I can play with the top players now, so I don't have to be as nervous as I was today."
Osaka, ranked 46th, tried to compare the situation to facing Venus Williams in a third-round loss at Wimbledon.
"I tried to tell myself I'm probably not going to get as nervous against Kerber as I did against Venus," she said. "That wasn't the most reassuring thing I have ever said, but it helped me through."
Osaka waited until after the match to focus on Kerber's status and skills and take full pride in her achievement of eliminating her.
"It means a lot, I feel, especially since how I ended last year's US Open. But I tried not to think how good she was while I was playing her.
"I felt really relieved, especially since I was so nervous on the last point. I just barely returned the serve. I just really didn't want to play a long point on the last one, so I was really glad when she made an error."
- 'Really negative' at times -
Osaka watched as a young girl as other stars became champions on the same Arthur Ashe Stadium court.
"I grew up watching the greatest players play on that court, so to win a match on it felt really special," Osaka said. "When we were little, we would come to the US Open every year so the site feels really familiar to me. It's nostalgic every time I come here."
Osaka is coached by Australian David Taylor, the former coach of 2011 US Open winner Samantha Stosur, and credits him with helping keep her positive.
"I tend to be really negative on myself, to the point where I don't really know what I'm doing anymore," Osaka said. "Since Toronto, I would say, I've been being really solid about that."
© 2017 AFP