Osaka, Kasatkina lead exciting young brigade

 - Alex Sharp

Rising stars of the women's game gave a promising glimpse into the future of the sport.

Naomi Osaka Roland-Garros© Julien Crosnier / FFT

The tennis world has been graced with greats of the game in recent years.

The men’s side has revolved around the ‘Big Four’ for the past decade and the ATP relentlessly pushes their “Next Gen” prospects like Hyeon Chung, Denis Shapovalov, Karen Khachanov and Stefanos Tsitsipas, who promise to be an exciting cast of characters in the coming years.

In the women's game, the push to promote equivalent prodigies is certainly more subtle, but the plethora of talent promises a captivating future for the WTA tour.

A recent issue of GQ had a stylish shoot with Naomi Osaka and declared the Japanese youngster the “coolest thing in tennis.” That is quite the statement, which had the 20-year-old in giggles in press in Paris.

“That's so embarrassing,” said Osaka with a smile. “I think if they wanted to title it something, they should have titled it the 'most awkward person in tennis.'

Osaka’s interviews are pretty unfiltered; she’s frank, funny and refreshingly doesn’t churn out clichés. And her captivating comments are equally as good as her blistering tennis. The world No.20 has reached at least the third round at all four Grand Slams, but 2018 has truly launched her into the limelight.

“I keep myself in a bubble so I don't really see too much,” claimed Osaka, reflecting on her recent rise. “Also, I feel a lot of support from the crowd, and I'm really grateful for that.”

Out on Court 3, Osaka’s legion of fans waving her nation’s flag were in fine voice to witness a 6-2 7-5 triumph over American teenager Sofia Kenin. An ardent Kenin fan broke into chorus at each change of ends, but was simply drowned out by vehement vocals firmly backing the 21st seed, who then rose for a standing ovation following match point.

Osaka admitted that “overthinking” and expectations contributed to a 1-5 second-set deficit. However the Florida-based star ruthlessly dispatched rallies, reeling off 24 of the last 27 points to book a second round against Zarina Diyas.

“I think it's the first-round nerves,” reflected Osaka. “But also, I have never been seeded before, so I think that added a little bit of pressure. I just have to find a way to overcome it.”

Osaka has been on the fringes of contention for the past couple of seasons but truly shot to prominence in March by toppling Maria Sharapova, Karolina Pliskova, world No.1 Simona Halep and Daria Kasatkina to lift the Indian Wells trophy.

Not a bad venue for a first WTA title, it must be said. She became the first unseeded champion in the Californian desert since Kim Clijsters in 2005, before a week later outgunning her idol Serena Williams at the Miami Open.

Osaka has always possessed seamless power, rattling off serves around 125mph and forehands also catapulting over 100mph, but is harnessing that force now.

"If Naomi serves well, and doesn't go for too much, and stays within herself, she's a threat on any surface," her coach Sascha Bajin told "It was a beautiful start to the season, but Naomi's not satisfied. She's still trying to improve - and especially on clay, there's a lot that she can improve.”

A keen computer gamer in spare time, Osaka uses apt terminology to describe tennis as a “mission”. She refuses to talk up Roland Garros title chances, but is certainly a legitimate chance for a deep run with defending champion Jelena Ostapenko and Venus Williams falling from her quarter.

The mission is on ...

Kasatkina catching the eye

Meanwhile, 21-year-old Kasatkina has an absorbing all-court artillery which is reaping rewards as she moves towards the top of the sport.

The Russian has notched victories against all four reigning Grand Slam champions, including over Jelena Ostapenko at the US Open, Caroline Wozniacki on home soil in St. Petersburg and Garbine Muguruza en route to the final in Dubai. A victory against Sloane Stephens at Indian Wells - where she eventually fell to Osaka in the final - completed the quartet and demonstrated the Russian’s prime-time billing.

The world No.14 is one of the most ferocious shotmakers on Tour but also possesses enviable variety and smart strategy. And, opening her French Open account on Monday, Kasatkina demonstrated her development against an opponent, Kaia Kanepi, who has troubled her in the past.

Kanepi defeated Kasatkina 6-4 6-4 at the US Open and followed this with an emphatic 6-2 6-2 scoreline in Brisbane back in January. Yet fast forward four months, and Kasatkina was a joy to watch on a packed Court 9 in a 6-4 6-1 victory over the Estonian.

One jumping double-handed backhand down the line prompted a series of “whoa” exclamations from the crowd as the 14th seed dictated play.

Up next for the brave ball-striker is Belgian veteran Kirsten Flipkens.

Bencic bouncing back

Belinda Bencic has been a key component of the women's troupe of rising stars ever since a scintillating quarter-final run at the 2014 US Open and her top-10 debut in February 2016. However, a succession of injuries have hit the Swiss star’s ranking; she currently languishes at No.72.

Her Grand Slam credentials are particularly strong, having also navigated to the fourth round in Melbourne and at Wimbledon, reaching a career-high position of world No.7 in 2016.

Last season was spent mostly on the sidelines, but a Hopman Cup triumph alongside compatriot Roger Federer at the turn of the year was set to launch Bencic back into contention. Yet another cruel twist - this time a right foot injury - meant Bencic hadn’t featured in action since March.

On Monday, she roared back into the spotlight with an astonishing showing in Roland-Garros round one.

A first set fell away sharply against Italian world No.161 Deborah Chiesa, before a miraculous comeback. Four match points down at 4-5, Bencic went for broke and forced a turbulent decider. The 21-year-old eventually fell to the clay in tears of joy, having closed out a marathon two hours and 48 minute victory 3-6 7-6(2) 7-5.

It was pure persistence, and could spark a resurgence this fortnight for the supremely talented Swiss.

A year younger than Bencic at just 20, Ana Konjuh is similarly discovering that the road back from injury can be a trying one.

She faced a tough draw in Paris; Carla Suarez Navarro is a harsh first-round opponent in anybody’s book, but particularly on clay. The 23rd seed swept Konjuh aside 6-0 6-1 in just 42 minutes.

As a teenager, Konjuh rose into the Top 20 and reached the quarter-finals in New York in 2016. Elbow ailments have kept the heavy-hitting Croatian out of competition since January, but a prolonged period of uninterrupted match play could see see the world No.104 begin a rise back up the rankings.