Osaka outlasts Azarenka

 - Alex Sharp

Top seed needs almost three hours to dispatch fellow Grand Slam champ on Lenglen.

Naomi Osaka© Philippe Montigny / FFT

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

The top seed is still adjusting to playing a first Grand Slam as the world No.1, yet pulled off another pulsating comeback.

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

The Japanese star lost the first set 6-0 to Anna Karolina Schmiedlova in the first round and also struggled to contain former world No.1 Azarenka in the opening exchanges.

The two-time Australian Open champion was pouncing on short balls, swatting a forehand 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. 

“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 Vika. The Belarusian streaked to a commanding 4-2 advantage in set two.

What now for the reigning US Open and Australian Open champion? What now for the 15-match streak at the majors?

"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

Osaka hooked a ferocious forehand cross-court winner to secure a hold after a 10-minute seventh game, restoring parity in the next game despite the Belarusian 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.

Naomi Osaka©Philippe Montigny / FFT

Three opportunities were dismissed, before the world No.1 lasered her 26th winner of a captivating 74-minute set to remain in contention.

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

> OSAKA v AZARENKA: Infosys Stats+

Azarenka’s quality and perseverance didn’t deserve being 1-5 down and the 29-year-old survived match point to break back with a crunching return. A steady hold and the pressure mounted for Osaka once again.

Staring down at break point, a brave second serve skimmed the line and Azarenka finally relented on the third match point.

“I think for me I feel like I didn't dip at all during this match, and she was just playing so well. I was just waiting for her to get a little bit tired,” said Osaka having booked a third-round encounter with world No.42 Katerina Siniakova.

“I felt like once I was towards the back of the court and she was more dictating, then the point was immediately over. I felt like I had to be more aggressive, and that's kind of hard to do while you're down and you have to win a lot of games in a row.”

Near miss for former No.1

For Azarenka it’s a case of pride in pushing the top seed to the limit. “That's very optimistic for me, I know I'm going to learn a lot from today,” she said. “I know that my game is there. Very, very close. I'm going to keep fighting and keep improving. I believe that finally my progress is showing from week to week.”

Azarenka also hailed the mental fortitude of the world No.1 for finding the answers in the defining moments.

“I think that I played very smart. I believe I didn't take some of my chances, but I felt that the margin of opportunity was very little for both of us. She has obviously a lot of confidence playing right now, so in those moments, she's been a lot in those situations where those margins are really small.

"She's been playing really well and proving that she deserves to be where she's at right now.”