Osaka and Zhang keep Asian flag flying

MELBOURNE • Dwelling too much on her achievement of reaching the Australian Open third round might "freak out" Japanese qualifier Naomi Osaka, so the teenager chooses to focus on taking down two-time champion Victoria Azarenka.

The 127th-ranked Osaka, appearing in the main draw of a grand slam for the first time, underlined her exciting potential with a 6-4, 6-4 defeat of 18th seed Elina Svitolina on Show Court Two yesterday.

The 18-year-old, the daughter of a Japanese mother and Haitian father, was still giddy by her achievement when she faced reporters post-match at Melbourne Park.

"Yeah, I'm pretty happy right now," said Osaka, who was born in the city of the same name but is based in the United States.

"I just wanted to qualify. That's all I was expecting. But I don't really like thinking about it too much because it freaks me out."

A clash against the 2012 and 2013 champion Azarenka now looms, with the Belarusian in red-hot form. Azarenka thrashed both her opponents in the opening rounds, dropping only three games.

But the idea of being intimidated by her opponent was lost on Osaka, who hopes to meet the former world No. 1 on centre court.

"I never feel pressure from playing someone that's supposed to be like better than me," she said. "I'm just going to go in there happy and hopefully try to pull off an upset."

She has made headlines before. She won the inaugural WTA Rising Stars Invitational in Singapore last October and defeated former US Open champion Sam Stosur in 2014 at Stanford, her main-draw debut at a WTA event.

Her development has caused excitement in Japan, and she gave ecstatic fans from the country a bow after beating Svitolina.

"Yeah, it's the only part of my Japanese side," she said of the gesture.

"Kind of because there were a lot of people cheering for me, and I kind of wanted to show how grateful I was. I always think that they're surprised that I'm Japanese. So the fact that there were like Japanese flags and stuff, it was, like, really touching."

Later on the same court, world No. 133 Zhang Shuai defeated France's Alize Cornet 6-3, 6-3 to become the last Chinese singles player standing at Melbourne Park.

The Tianjin native celebrated her 27th birthday in the best way possible and her wish is to keep progressing.

"(This is) like a dream come true. But I'm looking forward to the next match," said Zhang, who stunned world No. 2 Simona Halep in the first round and faces American Varvara Lepchenko tomorrow for a place in the fourth round.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 22, 2016, with the headline 'Osaka and Zhang keep Asian flag flying'. Print Edition | Subscribe