Ladies leading on clay in 2019
The No.1 seed came back from the brink to turn a near-disaster into victory.
All the chatter about a possible third successive Grand Slam victory for world No.1 Naomi Osaka was somewhat quietened as she laboured to a 0-6, 7-6(4), 6-1 first-round victory over Anna Karolina Schmiedlova.
In her first-ever appearance on Court Philippe-Chatrier, an utterly disastrous first set blew by in just 20 minutes, before Osaka at last grabbed control with the Slovak just two points from a shock win.
"This is the most nervous I have ever been my entire life during a match," said Osaka. "Logical reasons... First time playing a Grand Slam as No.1. Won the last two, so I kind of want to win this one really bad. I have never played on Chatrier before.
"I feel like I'm thinking too much about the number next to my name right now, instead of feeling free and having fun like I normally do in Grand Slams. Everything that I'm experiencing right now is very new."
Having reached at least the quarter-finals in all three of the clay tournaments she has played in the run-up to Roland-Garros, injury ruled her out of the last two – an abdominal strain in Madrid, and more worryingly a problem with her right thumb in Rome. But 12 days down the line, it has cleared up and did not contribute to her problems in this match. "It was completely fine," she confirmed.
This match was variously played out in a cold breeze, prolonged drizzle, a rain break and bright sunshine, all adding up to way too many variations in the whole clay-court equation which Osaka is still trying to figure out.
She already has more than enough to do in any case, calculating how to adapt her aggressive brand of tennis to the high, slow bounce on the clay, without also having to factor in bewilderingly volatile meteorological conditions.
It meant she reached for her go-to weapon as often as possible, adding 10 aces here to her existing tally for the year of 184; only Kiki Bertens and Karolina Pliskova have delivered more.
In Osaka’s case, this does not mean racquet-hurling around the court, although her frustration with her inability to find consistency was hardly difficult to spot. But what seemed to work best for her was giving in to her emotions at the changeover after her 16th unforced backhand error of the match handed Schmiedlova the chance to serve for the match.
In the chair at courtside, Osaka buried her face in her towel, and when she was ready to look up again it was clear she had been crying. Yet in the next game her attack at last started to come together, and the tiebreak was never in doubt.
It was a reminder of her tears during the Australian Open final, as she left the court for a bathroom break after Petra Kvitova snatched the second set to level the match. On her return to the court, Osaka had regained her focus and took the decider 6-4.
Amid the blizzard of factors going very wrong in the first set, Osaka’s second serve yielded precisely no points at all on the eight times she needed to deliver it. By the deciding set she was winning 83% of points on her first serve, with her second serve twice getting the job done on the three occasions it was required.
Likewise, in the opening two sets she fired 18 backhand errors, with winners off the same side in the famine zone. But in the game where she broke for 2-1 in the deciding set, that one game alone included three backhand winners, wreaking havoc on her opponent. It confirmed that she had found her game, and from there she stretched away.
Next up for Osaka is Victoria Azarenka, whose experience as an ex-world No.1 and two-time Grand Slam champion should make for a sterner test than world No.90 Schmiedlova. Their two meetings to date resulted in an overwhelming win for Azarenka in Australia in 2016, and a similarly conclusive victory for Osaka on the Roman clay last year.
"She's been playing really well recently, and there is no way that it's going to be a similar match to the one I played her in Rome last year," said Osaka. "So I'm expecting one of the hardest matches of the year."