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Paris | Osaka battles through as Sabalenka departs

On a day when at least four seeds were eliminated by mid afternoon, the match of tournament was being played out on Court Suzanne Lenglen between the top-seeded Naomi Osaka and former World No 1 Victoria Azarenka.

The first set I got rolled. I made a little bit of a comeback in the end of the first set, but technically, she kind of killed me, I just kept trying to find a way to stay positive. For me, after a certain point, I don't even look at the score. I just try to take it point by point. I have this mindset that I feel like I can win if it gets down to the wire, if I have to break a person, I feel like I have the ability to do that. Naomi Osaka

The battle certainly lived up to expectations, with Osaka battling back from a set and a break down to post a pulsating 4-6 7-5 6-3 victory and move into the Roland-Garros third round.

“Today I kind of felt like a challenger,” said Naomi Osaka with a smile. “I’m still kind of new at this.”

The World No 1 admitted that a 10-minute toilet break by Azarenka helped her to a second successive great escape on Thursday in Paris.

The Japanese, bidding to add the French Open to her US and Australian Open titles, also left the court before the start of the third set for a break, but returned quickly, while Azarenka disappeared for close on to 11 minutes.

While 21-year-old Osaka bided her time, many observers wondered if the lengthy delay was a deliberate act of gamesmanship.

If it was, it backfired on the two-time major winner.

“When I went to the bathroom to change, I was freaking out, because I didn’t want to get a code violation,” explained Osaka.

“So I was, like, rushing and stuff. And then I came back and saw that she wasn’t back. That kind of just relaxed me.

“I was in such a rush changing, my hands were shaking during that entire time. So when I came back and saw she wasn’t back, I just had a little bit of time to calm down and think about what I really wanted to do during the set. So, for me, I was fine.”

Osaka had been two points from defeat in her opener against Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, and against Azarenka she was staring down the barrel yet again at 2-4 down in the second set.

She held her nerve, though, despite squandering 2 match points, to secure a place in the third round and a clash against Katerina Siniakova of the Czech Republic.

“The first round obviously was really tough, and I think the first round is tough for everyone,” added Osaka.

“And this round, I was playing Azarenka, which is not the best combination.

“But I feel like I have to win. I acknowledge that’s kind of a toxic trait, but, like, it’s gotten me this far.”

Osaka finished the 2-hour 50-minute encounter with 52 winners and 43 unforced errors to become the first top seed to win her two opening matches at Roland Garros after losing the first set since Lindsay Davenport in 2005.

She is still adjusting to both playing a first Grand Slam as the World No 1and performing to her best on the clay.

The Japanese star lost the first set 6-0 to Schmiedlova in the first round, and also struggled to contain Azarenka in the opening exchanges.

The two-time Australian Open champion was pouncing on short balls, swatting forehands down the line to set the tone en route to an immediate break.

Azarenka was sharp, focused and precise, stepping in at any opportunity to deny Osaka any rhythm.

Now at 43 in the world, Azarenka claimed the 40-minute first set having stretched out to a 5-1 lead on the back of 2 breaks of serve as Osaka was undone by 15 unforced errors.

“The first set I got rolled. I made a little bit of a comeback in the end of the first set, but technically, she kind of killed me, I just kept trying to find a way to stay positive,” reflected Osaka.

“For me, after a certain point, I don’t even look at the score. I just try to take it point by point. I have this mindset that I feel like I can win if it gets down to the wire, if I have to break a person, I feel like I have the ability to do that.”

There was a shriek of disbelief from Osaka when an over-sliced backhand volley dipped into the net, with a triple break point chance being erased by the Belarusian, who streaked to a commanding 4-2 advantage in set two.

The Japanese appeared doomed when she failed to convert three break points in that fourth game.

Then, Osaka hooked a ferocious forehand cross-court winner to secure a hold after a 10-minute 7th game, restoring parity in the next game despite Azarenka being a point from 5-3 three times.

At 5-5 Azarenka directed a spectacular backhand pass down the line, but couldn’t quite snatch the decisive break.

Instead Osaka demonstrated why she is top of the pile.

The Belarusian, who had knocked out 2017 champion Jelena Ostapenko in the first round, then saved three set points in the 12th game before Osaka levelled the contest with a pinpoint, down the line winner.

After an 85-minute set, Azarenka took her lengthy toilet break before squandering 3 break points in the first game of the decider.

The shot making and intensity continued to crescendo as Osaka found an extra gear, firing 2 bullet forehands to fend off early danger in the decider, and the top seed accelerated towards the finish line.

Osaka was making her opponent pay, breaking twice for a 5-1 lead, but, in a rollercoaster of a match, Azarenka cut the deficit to 5-3, saving 2 match points in the process.

“I didn’t push enough through, so I have to learn from that, but I have to take positives from the match,” observed 29-year-old Azarenka.

“She deserves to be where she is – she is very powerful and explosive.”

Osaka is now on a 15-match streak at the majors, and faces Siniakova next, the World No 42, who also endured a marathon win, putting out Greek 29th seed Maria Sakkari, 7-6(5) 6-7(8) 6-3, in a three-hour 10-minute duel.

Moving to the exit doors prematurely was the No 11 seed, Aryna Sabalenka from Belarusia, who fell to Amanda Anisimova, the youngest American women into the third round of Roland-Garros since Serena Williams in 1998.

The American doesn’t turn 18 until 31 August, but she is making waves in Paris, and now has the prospect of not facing another seeded player until the quarter-finals.

Her performance in overcoming the Belarusian 21-year-old was gilded with maturity, the calibre of which has earned praise from her hero, Serena Williams, in the past.

Anisimova has first-hand experience of just how influential Serena can be, having been on the end of a one-to-one pep talk following a tight 6-3 6-1 6-4 loss against Anett Kontaveit earlier this year.

“When I had a tough loss at Miami Open – it was a really long match and I was super upset in the locker room – Serena actually came up to me and we shared a little bit of a chat,” she said. “That was really nice of her, and I’ll remember it forever.”

Williams herself breezed into the third round with a routine 6-3 6-2 win over Japanese Kurumi Nara, wasting no energy in her quest for a record-equalling Grand Slam singles title.

The 10th seed, chasing a first major since the 2017 Australian Open, survived a first-set fright in her opening match, but there was no hiccup this time.

She will take on fellow American Sofia Kenin in the next round, with World No 1 Osaka a potential opponent in the quarter-finals.

As often with Williams, both the clothes and the arm did the talking on Court Philippe Chatrier.

She stepped into the stadium wearing her Virgil Abloh-designed dress printed with the words ‘Reine, Mere, Championne, Deesse’ [Queen, Mother, Champion, Goddess].

On court, the 37-year-old was given a decent workout by World No 238 Nara, who was playing only her second match in the main draw of a tour-level tournament this year.

Nara stood her ground in the first 7 games but derailed in the 8th when Williams broke for 5-3 with a booming forehand winner down the line.

The Japanese cracked earlier in the second set, dropping serve in the third game, and never recovered as Williams snatched her 801st victory on the tour.

Other seeds leaving Paris are Qiang Wange (16), who lost to Iga Swiatek, 6-3 6-0; and Su-Wei Hsieh (25) who went down to Andrea Petkovic, 4-6 6-3 8-6.

Safely through to fight another day are Ash Barty (8), who convincingly dispatched Danielle Collins, 7-5 6-1, and Darla Kasatkina (21), who took out Monica Puig, 6-3 6-1.

Scheduled late onto court was the defending champion Simona Halep and Lesla Tsurenko, who faced Magda Linette and Aleksandra Krunic respectively, with the prospect of meeting each other in round three.



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