WTA Finals: Japan's Naomi Osaka falls 7-5, 4-6, 6-1 to American Sloane Stephens in Red Group opener

Naomi Osaka reacts during the first Red Group match of the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore against Sloane Stephens (not pictured) at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on Oct 22, 2018.
Naomi Osaka reacts during the first Red Group match of the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore against Sloane Stephens (not pictured) at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on Oct 22, 2018.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

SINGAPORE - A day before the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global, Sloane Stephens had admitted: “I don’t play my best in Asia.”

Though the 2017 US Open champion put up a solid display last night to defeat reigning US Open champion Naomi Osaka at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, she is holding off on changing this assessment.

Clean hitting, a strong defence and cool composure saw world No.6 Stephens prevail 7-5, 4-6, 6-1 over fourth-ranked Osaka in the first Red Group match of the season finale.

“It’s been one match,” said a smiling Stephens, who notched her third win in Asia last night – she had lost in the opening rounds of the Tokyo and Wuhan Opens, and in the round of 16 at the China Open in Beijing. “Obviously getting those two wins in Beijing was good for me, I’m just trying to build on that.”

Still, the 25-year-old American was pleased with her performance last night. “I thought I played a really good match – I played solid from start to finish,” she said.
“I knew from the very beginning it was obviously going to be a tough match, so I was going to have to stay in a lot of long points and make sure that I got a lot of plays on the ball, which I did... I just made her play an extra ball.”

Yesterday’s win extended Stephens’ head-to-head advantage over the Japanese to 2-0. Both are making their first appearance at the US$7 million (S$9.65 million) event.

Though Stephens served six double faults to Osaka’s four and zero aces to her opponent’s seven, the American had a higher overall first-serve percentage of 69 while Osaka’s was 56.

Stephens also hit 16 fewer unforced errors than her opponent during the 2hr 24min match, during which the crowd held up signs in English and Japanese to cheer Osaka on.

The 21-year-old had no regrets, saying: “Usually after I lose, I have very specific things that I think would have changed the match, but I don’t have any regrets – this entire match was a really hard battle.

“I took my five minutes of being really sad and, from there, I just tried to think... What can I learn from this match and try to apply it to the next match? And this is really interesting because all the players you play here are the best in the world... It can only get better (with) every match you play.”

Both players exchanged breaks of serve twice in the first set. Osaka saved two set points at 5-6, but hit an unforced error off her forehand on the third. She led 5-2 in the second set, but Stephens won the next two games and double-faulted on the second set point.

Stephens ramped up her aggression in the third set, hitting a crafty drop shot to earn her first match point. Though Osaka saved it with a service winner, she then double-faulted to seal the win for Stephens.
The Japanese said: “If you think you hit a winner, she’d still run for it and it feels like you have to restart the point from zero.

“The fact that she barely misses is a really strong point of hers and everyone knows that about her.”

In the other Red Group match, qualifier Kiki Bertens stunned Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber 1-6, 6-3, 6-4.


Sloane Stephens is making her first appearance at the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Stephens, 25, ramped up her aggression in the third set, keeping her composure and capitalising on a series of unforced errors to lead 5-1.

As Osaka served to stay in the match, Stephens hit a crafty drop shot to earn her first match point, which her opponent saved with a service winner.

An Osaka double-fault then sealed the win for Stephens, who is also making her first appearance at the US$7 million (S$9.7 million) event.

Said Stephens after the 2hr 24min match: "Naomi is a great player and playing with a lot of confidence right now and having an awesome season, so I'm just really happy to be through. We played a really good, competitive match so it's always an honour to play with somebody that good.

"I just competed really well, I never gave up. I knew that I was going to have to play some really good tennis to beat her so I just stayed tough and tried to stay as positive as I could just to take my opportunities when they presented themselves."