Down a set and a break of serve against Coco Gauff, Naomi Osaka was in danger of making a quick exit at the Western and Southern Open in her return to the WTA Tour.
But Osaka kept her composure, tinkered with her tactics, cut down on errors and found a way to impose her power game on the 17-year-old Gauff.
Cracking groundstrokes and above all pounding decisive serves, the No. 2 seed Osaka came back to win 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 and secure a spot in the round of 16 against Jil Teichmann of Switzerland.
It was a reaffirming victory for Osaka, who has had an up-and-down season: winning her fourth Grand Slam singles title in February at the Australian Open and then withdrawing after one round at the French Open after her decision not to participate in required news conferences led to a clash with tournament officials.
She skipped Wimbledon and then returned for the Olympics in Japan, the nation she represents. She became the first tennis player to light the Olympic cauldron and then lost in the third round of women’s singles to Marketa Vondrousova, missing out on a medal.
On Monday, before her opening match against Gauff, Osaka began to cry and briefly broke off her first news conference in nearly three months after thoughtfully answering a question about her relationship with the news media.
But she was resolute down the stretch against Gauff on Wednesday, applauding some of Gauff’s best shots while producing plenty of highlights of her own.
She lost just one point on her serve in the final set and finished off the victory, fittingly, with an ace.
“I’ve had a really weird year,” Osaka said in her on-court interview. “I think some of you know what happened to me this year. I changed my mind-set 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.”
She said she had done a lot of reflection since her news conference on Monday.
“I was wondering why was I was so affected I guess, like what made me not want to do media in the first place,” she said. “And then I was thinking and wondering if I was scared because sometimes I would see headlines of players losing and the headline the next day would be a ‘collapse’ or ‘they’re not that great anymore’. And so then I was thinking, me waking up every day I should feel like I’m winning. Like the choice to go out there and play, to go see fans, that people come out and watch me play, that itself is an accomplishment and I’m not sure when along the way I started desensitizing that and it started not being an accomplishment for me, so I felt I was very ungrateful on that fact.”
Osaka remains committed to using her stardom to bring attention to causes that matter to her. Before the tournament, she announced that she would donate her prize money from the Western and Southern Open to disaster relief in Haiti, her father’s native country.
“I’m not really doing that much,” she said on Monday. “I could do more. I’m trying to figure out what I could do and where exactly to put my energy, but I would say the prize-money thing is sort of the first thing I thought of that I could do that would raise the most awareness.”
Osaka said the constraints of playing during the pandemic have worn on her.
“I think definitely this whole Covid thing was very stressful with the bubbles and not seeing people and not having interactions,” she said. “But I guess seeing the state of the world, how everything is in Haiti and how everything is in Afghanistan right now is definitely really crazy and for me just to be hitting a tennis ball in the United States right now and have people come and watch me play is, I don’t know, like I would want to be myself in this situation rather than anyone else in the world.”
Osaka has played relatively little tennis this season. Wednesday’s match was her first in a tour event since her first-round victory at the French Open in May. The Olympics, though prestigious, does not award ranking points and is not an official part of the tour.
But hardcourts remain far and away Osaka’s best surface. Her Grand Slam titles have all come on hardcourts: two at the Australian Open and two at the U.S. Open, which will begin on Aug. 30 in New York.
“Of course I’d really love to win this tournament for the extra motivation I have giving an organization my prize money for Haiti,” she said on Monday. “But I accidentally saw my draw, so I know how hard it’s going to be.”
Osaka had played Gauff twice before, defeating her 6-3, 6-0 in the third round of the 2019 U.S. Open and losing to her 6-3, 6-4 in the third round of the 2020 Australian Open, where she walked the streets of Melbourne afterward to try to work through her emotions.
Wednesday’s match was long-form in comparison with their previous two, but it was still defined by full-cut shots and short rallies. Their longest exchange was just 11 strokes, and both players struggled with consistency on their returns.
“I think coming off of Tokyo, coming here and playing her as my first opponent, she’s not really my favorite player to play,” Osaka said. “Mentally I think it’s the most straining to play against her.”
But Osaka adjusted her return position on Gauff’s second serve early in the second set, moving back a few steps to give herself more time to react. It paid off with three service breaks, and though Osaka blew hot and cold, she was ultimately the more reliable player.
She had three double faults to Gauff’s nine and 31 unforced errors to Gauff’s 45. Above all, as Gauff struggled to control her forehand, Osaka seemed at peace with the moment and the pressure, raising her game when she needed it most.
“Just waking up in the morning is a win,” Osaka said.
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