San Jose | Osaka wins to set up clash with Gauff

Japan’s Naomi Osaka, back from a two-and-a-half month absence, fought for a 1st-round win in the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic on Tuesday night, beating China’s uprising teenage talent, Zheng Qinwen, 6-4 3-6 6-1, to set up a  meeting in round 2 with American Coco Gauff, who sailed past Anhelina Kalinina from Ukraine, 6-1 6-0.

I have a lot of confidence in myself in third sets. I'm not sure if it's subconscious or not but I do remember thinking it's going to be hard for her to break me. Naomi Osaka

Osaka has not played since losing in the 1st-round of the French Open, sitting out the grass-court season, including Wimbledon, because of an Achilles injury.

“It’s really good to be back,” she said in her on-court interview after the win. “I’m just really happy.

“I didn’t really care if I won today. I just wanted to have fun. I’m literally just here to have a good time.”

Osaka brought sunshine to a cloudy Tuesday evening with a sunflower yellow skirt and even brighter tennis that animated a packed crowd in the stadium on the campus of San Jose State University in California.

Despite Tuesday being Osaka’s first match since May, the 24-year-old felt relaxed on the court for several reasons, and her father was one of them.

It was Osaka’s debut with dad, Leonard Francois, as her coach since she split with Wim Fissette.

“He really doesn’t say much,” Osaka said. “The times that he does say stuff, it’s really weird, random stuff that kind of makes me laugh, so I think it’s a good thing.”

Apparently he had nothing to say to Osaka before the match, but while she played he kept saying: “You’re a tennis player, you play tennis. You’re tall.”

Naomi Osaka presented a happy face in her match against Zheng Qinwen on Tuesday

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The 2018 and 2020 US Open champion put less than half of her first serves into play against Zheng, but came through when it mattered, saving 7 of 8 break points she faced, while holding the edge of 11 to 3 in aces as the Chinese coughed up more double-faults, with 7 to 2.

It was a stern test for Osaka from the 19-year-old, whose deep groundstrokes offset the Japanese’s first-strike tennis, and the two exchanged power from the baseline, with a singles break deciding each of the first two sets before the former World No 1 ran away with the final set.

“I have a lot of confidence in myself in third sets,” Osaka said. “I’m not sure if it’s subconscious or not but I do remember thinking it’s going to be hard for her to break me.”

Questions surrounding her fitness coming into the tournament were put at bay, with Osaka assuring reporters that she felt fit and healthy.

Behind clutch serving, Osaka saved all 3 break points she faced in the opening set, and after breaking Zheng to 2-1, she stayed perfect in her service games to take the opener after 45 minutes.

The second remained a tight affair, and the 19-year-old finally broke through the Osaka serve to lead 5-3.

On break point, Zheng powered through a return that skid off the baseline, but Osaka opted to stop play and challenge the line call, which was shown to be in and the Chinese coolly closed out the set with a love hold to force the decider.

Osaka quickly put the second set behind her, changed her shoes, and cleaned up her game, having hit 16 unforced errors in the first two sets to strike just 6 in the final frame.

Zheng made just 6 unforced errors to win the second set, but her consistency failed her in the third, hitting 13 miscues.

“Because I learned a lot from challenging that last ball in that game that I did get broken,” Osaka continued. “I think that’s one thing that I have above her, is that I have a lot of experience.

“I’ve definitely played more matches than her, so it’s going to be interesting to watch her grow.”

Osaka finished with 26 winners to 23 unforced errors, with 11 aces, while Zheng hit 23 winners to 30 unforced errors, and went 1 for 8 on her break point chances.

Coco Gauff swept past Anhelina Kalinina, dropping just 1 game, to set a meeting with Naomi Osaka in round 2 in San Jose

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Meanwhile, Gauff, the No 6 seed and ranked at a career-high of No 11 this week, set the tone early against Kalinina, losing just 3 points in the first 3 games, and she did not face a break point until her 5th service game, already with a one-set lead.

Striking 12 winners to Kalinina’s 1 in the opener, the trend continued in the second, with the American firing 29 winners to 14 unforced errors in the match, as she broke the Ukrainian’s serve 5 times and served 7 aces.

“Today’s match was great,” she said. “I was glad to find out I was playing the night match. I love night sessions!

“This crowd was pretty energetic. It’s a small stadium, but the sound is really loud, so I enjoyed it.”

She will get another chance to play under the lights on the campus of San Jose State University against Osaka, with their round 2 match will be played on Thursday evening.

It will be the 4th time overall, and 3rd on US hard courts, that Gauff and Osaka will go head-to-head, with the Japanese leading 2-1.

The pair famously played in the 3rd round of the US Open in 2019, where Osaka comforted a teary-eyed Gauff after a 6-3 6-0 win, while their second encounter was also a straight-setter but won by the American in the 3rd-round of the Australian Open in 2020, when Osaka was the defending champion.

Their last meeting was last summer in Cincinnati, at the Western & Southern Open, where Osaka rallied for a 4-6 6-3 6-4 win.

“I played her a lot of times, and she’s obviously going to be a tough opponent,” Gauff said. “Either way, win or lose, I think that the match is going to be great.

“She’s such a champion, on and off the court, so I guess those are the type of people that you want to play, and I look forward to playing those matches.”

Osaka was similarly complementary of Gauff, saying: “What’s always impressed me about Coco is her mentality.

“When I was her age, I would find myself getting frustrated and I would show it.

“I just think it’s really cool how she’s able to stay really neutral all the time.

“She’s been on the tour for a while and, I think, people don’t know that because of how young she is.

“She’s improving every year, so I think there’s a lot that she’s learning, and it’s only a matter of time before she wins a [Grand] Slam.

“The last time we played in Cincy, I was just really tense there,” she continued.

“I’m just looking to see what she’s improved. When I go on the court, I know who I am, so I just want to see what she’s going to bring.”

Veronika Kudermetova played the longest match of the day, beating Camila Giorgi to advance to round 2 at the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic

© Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

In other 1st-round action, 9th-seeded Veronika Kudermetova of Russia eked out a 7-6(2) 4-6 7-5 win over Italy’s Camila Giorgi, while American Shelby Rogers downed Canada’s Bianca Andreescu, 6-4 6-2, and Caroline Dolehide won an all-US match-up against Kayla Day, 7-6(5) 6-4.

Rogers played a clean and focused match to power past Andreescu, who struggled with a lower back issue, and will face top seed Maria Sakkari next.

In the longest match of the day, Kudermetova withstood the powerful barrage from Giorgi to win after 2 hours and 54 minutes.



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