US Open 2019

Osaka sluggish in opening defence

Naomi Osaka venting her frustrations after a point in her US Open match against Anna Blinkova at the Arthur Ashe Stadium. Osaka advanced to face Magda Linette in the next round. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Naomi Osaka venting her frustrations after a point in her US Open match against Anna Blinkova at the Arthur Ashe Stadium. Osaka advanced to face Magda Linette in the next round. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Japanese top seed comes through first round unscathed despite slew of unforced errors

NEW YORK • Naomi Osaka put her right hand in the shape of a gun and pointed two fingers at her temple. She had just dropped the second set, moments after wasting a match point, as her US Open title defence got off to a shaky start.

Her body language told the story: the eye rolls, the kneeling at the baseline, the balled-up fists covering her face at a changeover, the racket resting atop her head.

Back at the Arthur Ashe Stadium, where she won last year's amid Serena Williams' meltdown over sideline coaching, Osaka kept digging holes and kept climbing out of them, eventually emerging with a 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-2 victory over 84th-ranked Anna Blinkova of Russia in the first round.

"I don't think I've ever been this nervous in my life," the top seed Osaka, 21, said post-match.

"I just came off really slow and I never really found my rhythm. I'm kind of really glad that's over."

The Japanese wore a black sleeve over her left knee, which has been an issue recently.

But it was not so much her movement as her erratic strokes that were problematic. She finished with 50 unforced errors, more than double Blinkova's 22.

During the professional era, which began in 1968, only two women's champions have lost in the first round the following year.

It happened in 2005 to Svetlana Kuznetsova and again in 2017 to Angelique Kerber, who was beaten by none other than Osaka, ranked 45th at the time and yet to get past the third round at a Grand Slam.

GAME FACE

I could kind of see how stressed out (Kerber) was and that was in my favour. I don't want to give people that look.

NAOMI OSAKA, US Open defending champion, recalling how her beating another former winner influenced her attitude in Tuesday's first round.

Osaka recalled that match, saying: "I could kind of see how stressed out (Kerber) was and that was in my favour. I don't want to give people that look."

This victory, difficult as it was, stretched Osaka's winning streak in hard-court Slam matches to 15, which includes her run to the titles at Flushing Meadows last year and the Australian Open in January.

Those helped her become the first Japanese tennis world No. 1, a spot she regained this month from Australian Ashleigh Barty.

Osaka has spoken openly about her struggles with pressure and expectations this season. She said on Tuesday that she hoped figuring out how to get past Blinkova would boost her moving forward.

"It helps me a lot, because I learn from the tougher matches," Osaka said. "It helps me be prepared... learn and adjust my game plan."

One player who had a less effective game plan was 2017 champion Sloane Stephens. She was stunned by Russian qualifier Anna Kalinskaya 6-3, 6-4 in the first round.

"I was playing one good point, one bad point, one good point," said the American.

In other matches, Wimbledon teen sensation Cori Gauff shook off nerves and rallied to beat Russia's Anastasia Potapova 3-6, 6-2, 6-4.

Wimbledon champion Simona Halep, a first-round US Open loser the past two years, felt a mental load lifted after advancing with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 win over American lucky loser Nicole Gibbs.

"Definitely I feel lighter now," the Romanian fourth seed said. "I feel much better that I could win a match finally in this tournament."

ASSOCIATED PRESS, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

US OPEN

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2019, with the headline 'Osaka sluggish in opening defence'. Print Edition | Subscribe