“It’s going to be interesting to see how Naomi Osaka starts this match,” said British TV commentator Claire Curran as WTA No. 2 warmed up for her match with Coco Gauff at the Western & Southern Open on Wednesday.
Interesting, actually. The wind was swirling around the main stadium in Mason, Ohio, and there was also a lot of swirling around Osaka. It has been a season of extremes for her. She has won her fourth major title, at the Australian Open, and lit the torch at the Olympics in Tokyo. At the same time, she has withdrawn from Wimbledon, lost early in Tokyo and fought against the media. When she heard about the earthquake earlier this week in Haiti, the country where her father was born, Osaka said she would donate her prize money to the relief effort.
“I’ve had a really weird year,” was how Osaka summed it up on the field today.
You could see from the start of this fight that Osaka was determined to block as much of the weirdness as she could and focus on the task at hand. It was not easy. This was her first match since Tokyo, and just her third since Roland Garros, and it was against Coco Gauff. Osaka had lost her last meeting for the 17-year-old, in Melbourne in 2020. She later admitted that it was a defeat she had a particularly hard time accepting.
It was easy to imagine, in the opening matches on Wednesday, that Osaka would be forced to accept another defeat at Gauff’s hands. The American has played much more tennis in 2021 than Osaka; she has improved by the month; and she looked frighteningly solid in her easy win over Hsieh Su-wei on Tuesday.
Osaka, however, had other ideas and she looked sharp to start. She held on in the first match with an advance winner and earned a couple of breakpoints in Gauff’s opening service. She had changed her recurring position slightly to line up for a preview, and that may have thrown Gauff, who twice failed twice. But Osaka and her advance were not ready to take advantage and she missed returns from that side on both breakpoints.
From that point until the middle of the second set, Gauff had the upper hand. She successfully countered Osaka’s reset position by going straight into her front page, and she successfully received Osaka’s powerful basic play with heavy, high-jumping own shots. Gauff’s advance has always been the weakest of her kind, but her top spin from that side today looked impenetrable at first. Instead, it was Osaka’s advance that continued to fire.
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