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Naomi Osaka's razzle-dazzle good enough to advance at U.S. Open

Naomi Osaka returns against Anna Blinkova during their

Naomi Osaka returns against Anna Blinkova during their first round match in the 2019 U.S. Open on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Naomi Osaka’s description of how she can rebound from wobbly-knee tennis to throwing haymakers — as she did on several occasions in Tuesday’s 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-2 first-round survival against unseeded Anna Blinkova — is “razzle-dazzle.”

Not that she invites such drama. “I would prefer not to play three-set matches,” admitted Osaka, the U.S. Open’s defending champion. “I feel like playing two-set matches, it’s more decisive and clean. It feels more firm. Like, you put a statement out that you’re playing well. As opposed to three-set matches.”

Still, the skirmish with Blinkova was an accurate picture of the 2019 Osaka, at 21 already with two major-tournament trophies and ranked No. 1 in the world. That’s because she went from consecutive Slam titles to third- and first-round losses in the two most recent majors. “I would describe it as a book,” she said of that uneven journey.

“It’s not quite done yet. Currently being written,” she said. “I don’t know how the ending is going to be. I only know what the chapters are. For me, it’s just reading it, you know. Plot twist. But the kind of plot twist that makes you want to keep reading it.”

Against Blinkova, a 20-year-old Russian ranked 84th, it was immediately clear that Osaka could not be content to rely on her assets. Quickly down, 3-0, then 1-4, 15-40, Osaka admitted she “never have been so nervous in my life” and that her anxiousness never went away, “which is very strange for me.”

When Blinkova began to struggle a bit with her serve midway through the first set and her lead disappeared — blink and it was ova — Osaka reeled off the last three games of the set to take charge. Temporarily, anyway.

Osaka said she flashed back to a 2017 first-round match against defending Open champion Angelique Kerber — Osaka got the upset — and how “I could kind of see how stressed out she was, and that was in my favor.”

But this time, razzle-dazzle from the reigning champ Osaka took over in the third.

There are many other characters in this Open women’s story. Reigning Wimbledon champion Simona Halep, former Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova, former French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko and former Australian Open champ Caroline Wozniacki all won on Tuesday, as did 22-year-old former Ohio State national collegiate champion Francesca Di Lorenzo, and this year’s Wimbledon quarterfinalist, 29-year-old American Alison Riske. Sloane Stephens, the 2017 Open champion who is seeded 11th, did not fare as well, falling to Russia's Anna Kalinskaya, 6-3, 6-4. 

So, despite the always intimidating presence of 23-time major-tournament champion Serena Williams, who will play her second-round match Wednesday night, 11 of the last 12 Slam tournaments have been won by other women. And Riske, after knocking off former French champion Gabrine Muguruza in three sets, offered that “everyone playing these Grand Slams, I think everyone can beat everyone.

“And that’s something I think, when I first started [turning pro in 2009] wasn’t always necessarily the case,” Riske said. “The young generation has made a presence on the tour. They’re getting younger and younger and really making statements.”

Dazzling with their razzle.

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