Osaka overcomes jitters to march on

Naomi Osaka marched through the opening set in 38 minutes against Kristina Mladenovic on Saturday but struggled in the second set before getting a grip and wrapped up the match in one hour and 21 minutes. .
Naomi Osaka marched through the opening set in 38 minutes against Kristina Mladenovic on Saturday but struggled in the second set before getting a grip and wrapped up the match in one hour and 21 minutes. .PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Japanese pips Dubai conqueror Mladenovic in her first match of Indian Wells title defence

LOS ANGELES • Naomi Osaka's ascent to tennis' summit began last March when she claimed her first WTA title at Indian Wells and, while the world No. 1 has since clinched two successive Grand Slams, the Californian event remains her sole victory outside of the majors.

And the Japanese's eagerness to get her title defence off to a flyer led to butterflies, with Osaka suffering a scare before emerging with a 6-3, 6-4 last-64 victory over France's Kristina Mladenovic on Saturday.

The 21-year-old marched through the opening set in 38 minutes, but hit a speed bump when she was broken while serving for the match at 5-2 in the second.

Mladenovic held serve to narrow the deficit to 5-4, and Osaka faced another break point before wrapping up the match in one hour and 21 minutes for a third-round meeting with American Danielle Collins.

Recalling how her 65th-ranked opponent had beaten her in Dubai last month in her first match since lifting the Australian Open in January, she said: "The last time I played her, I lost, so anything's a bonus.

"I've never been a defending champion before, that's new and I was really nervous."

In the other women's ties, seven-time major winner Venus Williams pulled off the upset of the day, rallying from a set and two breaks down to topple third-seeded Petra Kvitova 4-6, 7-5, 6-4.

NEW EXPERIENCE

The last time I played her, I lost, so anything's a bonus. I've never been a defending champion before, that's new and I was really nervous.

NAOMI OSAKA, recalling how her 65th-ranked opponent Kristina Mladenovic had beaten her in Dubai last month in her first match since winning the Australian Open singles title in January.

"I just fought and tried my hardest," said the world No. 36, who also attributed her comeback to "just being in the moment".

"A double break is not ideal against a great server, especially a left-handed server."

Williams booked a third-round clash with fellow American Christina McHale, a 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 winner over 30th-seeded Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

There was disappointment, too, for 2011 winner Caroline Wozaniacki, who fell 7-5, 2-6, 7-5 to Russia's Ekaterina Alexandrova.

In the men's draw, top-ranked Novak Djokovic also had to overcome nerves before dispatching American qualifier Bjorn Fratangelo in straight sets to reach the third round at Indian Wells.

However, it had nothing to do with living up to the expectations of the crowd, with the Serb recording his 50th win at the tournament, his highest at any ATP Masters 1000 event, and everything to do with putting on a show for his boyhood idol in the stands.

Fourteen-time Grand Slam champion Pete Sampras, who Djokovic overtook when he landed his 15th major in Melbourne, was among the spectators and the 31-year-old admitted the American's presence made him feel "a bit nervous".

After beating Fratangelo 7-6, 6-2, he said: I don't get to see Pete that often. I was pleasantly surprised to see him watching my match.

"It's a thrill, obviously, to see someone that I looked up to when I was a kid. I tried too hard in the first set to impress him. It was really nice, and I went up to him and I thanked him for coming."

Djokovic, playing his first match since winning a record seventh Australian Open, next faces German Philipp Kohlschreiber, a 6-4, 6-4 winner over Australian Nick Kyrgios. He can tie second-ranked Rafael Nadal's record of 33 Masters 1000 titles should he claim a record sixth Indian Wells title.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

INDIAN WELLS MASTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 11, 2019, with the headline 'Osaka overcomes jitters to march on'. Print Edition | Subscribe