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Osaka passes Gauff test as Sabalenka and Andreescu bow out

On the day when Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff were due to meet, Aryna Sabalenka and Bianca Andreescu were dispatched by Paula Badosa and Karolina Muchova respectively as they joined Elina Svitolina, Iga Swiatek and Simona Halep at the exit doors of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati.

 

I think definitely this whole Covid thing was really stressful with the bubbles and not seeing people and not having the interactions. But seeing the state of the world, how everything is in Haiti, and Afghanistan right now is definitely really crazy, and for me to just be hitting a tennis ball in the United States right now, and have people come and watch me play is... I would want to be myself in this situation rather than anyone else in the world.” Naomi Osaka

Osaka made her winning return to the WTA Tour, after losing the first set to American teenager Gauff, 4-6 6-3 6-4, in an hour 51 minutes.

“Waking up in the morning is a win,” she said after edging the 17-year old.

Osaka has not featured in a regular WTA Tour match since withdrawing from the French Open in May due to mental health issues, although she did play at the Tokyo Olympics where she made it to the third-round.

Gauff had won their previous meeting, and she got the only break of the first set, capitalising on an erratic service game from the Japanese in the 9th game.

The 2nd seed struggled early in the second set too as Gauff broke again in game 3, but this time Osaka struck back straight away and broke again before serving out the set.

She carried the momentum into the decider with a break in the opening game, and then held her nerve for the rest of the set, later saying that she was trying various things during the early stages of the match.

“The first set was an experiment,” Osaka said later. “I was trying to see what was going on as I’ve not played that many matches.

“I was just examining here and trying to stay calm, trying to keep a level head.

“It means a lot to me, especially coming off Tokyo. She’s not my favourite to play. It’s very straining mentally.

“But this is a win I can definitely congratulate myself for.”

Asked how she had turned things around during the on-court interview, the 4-time Grand Slam winner said: “I’ve had a really weird year. I think some of you know what happened to me this year. I changed my mindset a lot.

“Even if I lost I would have felt that I’m a winner. There’s so much stuff going on in the world…. just waking up in the morning is a win.”

Up next for her is Jill Teichmann for a place in the quarter-final after the Swiss wild-card beat American Bernarda Pera, 6-1 6-4.


Coco Gauff let a one set lead slip against Naomi Osaka in Cincinnati

© Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Speaking after her match, Osaka reflected how she had felt ‘ungrateful’ over the last year for being unable to appreciate her success.

“I wonder what affected me… made me not want to do media?” she asked. “I’m wondering if I was scared because, sometimes, I would see headlines of players losing and then the headline the next day would be like ‘a collapse’ or ‘they’re not that great anymore’.

“The choice to go out there and play, to go see fans, the people that are coming out and watching you play, that itself is an accomplishment and I’m not sure when along the way I started desensitising that.

“It started not being an accomplishment for me, so I felt like I was very ungrateful on that fact.”

The 23-year-old Japanese also pulled out of Wimbledon to take a break from tennis, having experienced anxiety and depression.

She returned to play at her home Olympics in Tokyo, where she lit the flame at the opening ceremony before going on to lose in the third round.

Osaka thinks the Covid-19 pandemic might also have been a factor in her mental health issues and says recent world events have given her a fresh perspective.

“I think definitely this whole Covid thing was really stressful with the bubbles and not seeing people and not having the interactions,” she said.

“But seeing the state of the world, how everything is in Haiti [her father’s homeland, which has been hit by an earthquake and tropical storm in recent days] and Afghanistan right now is definitely really crazy, and for me to just be hitting a tennis ball in the United States right now, and have people come and watch me play is… I would want to be myself in this situation rather than anyone else in the world.”


Paula Badosa upset Aryna Sabalenka in a 3rd-set tiebreak

© Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Sabalenka, the No 3 seed, was beaten as dusk fell by a surging Spaniard Paula Badosa, who rallied from a set down, and a break down in the decider, to beat the Belarusian after a 2 hour 19 minute battle, 5-7 6-2 7-6(4).

It was Badosa’s second comeback, with a deciding tiebreak to boot, in as many matches in her Cincinnati debut so far, having saved 5 match points in a 4-6 6-4 7-6(9) victory over Petra Martic in the first round.

“I think with fans, I played even better,” she said on-court. “I wasn’t expecting [success like this] at the beginning of the year.

“I knew I was working hard, but everything is coming very fast. I think it’s a little bit of self confidence and believing in myself and trusting every ball, like I did today.

“Aryna is an amazing player. I used to see her on TV, so at the beginning, it was a little bit surprising. She has amazing shots. I knew I had to fight until the last moment, and that’s what I did.”

Badosa advances to face Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina for a spot in the quarter-finals.

Despite doubling Badosa’s winners, 41 to 20, and hitting 9 aces, Sabalenka also coughed up 12 double-faults and 54 unforced errors in the match, which proved a step too far against the consistent Spaniard, who was aggressive when she had her opportunities, and claimed her 3rd Top 10 win of the season.

Both players made 9 break points, with Badosa breaking serve 6 times and losing her own 5 times, but neither faced one across the last 7 games of the decider, setting the match up for a thrilling conclusion.


Karolina Muchova took out 7th-seeded Bianca Andreescu in straight sets on Wednesday

WTA

Elsewhere, Karolina Muchova only needed 2 sets to dispatch Bianca Andreescu, 6-4 6-2, in an hour 26 minutes on Stadium 3.

It was the World No 23 who got off to a better start, earning the first breakpoint of the match in the opening game and breaking to take an early 1-0 lead, but she wasn’t able to consolidate the break as the Canadian broke right back the next game.

It stayed on serve until 4-3 when the Andreescu had a look at another break point but Muchova saved it and managed to hold serve before earning the crucial break in the very next game, using her powerful forehand to great effect.

That break was all she needed to serve out the first set to love and kept the momentum into the second when she broke again in the first game of the second set.

At 2-1, the Canadian had a chance to get back on serve with another break point opportunity but the Czech did a good job saving it and held serve, then broke again to go up a double break but Andreescu recovered it in the next game with a stunning cross-court forehand winner.

There was yet another break of serve in the following game and, with a passing shot on breakpoint. Muchova served out the match the next game to complete the upset.

The Czech will now play the No 10 seed Belinda Bencic, after the Swiss outpaced American Shelby Rogers, 7-6(1) 6-1.

Another Czech, 5th-seeded Karolina Pliskova, cruised past Yulia Putintseva from Kazakstan, 6-3 6-2, setting up a meeting with America’s Jessica Pegula, who benefitted from a walkover when Halep, the 12th seed from Romania, withdrew because of injury.

Putintseva’s compatriot Rybakina fared better with a 6-3 6-2 upset of Elise Mertens, the 15th-seeded Belgian, and she takes on Badosa next.



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