Naomi Osaka, at her most nervous, avoids historic French Open first-round upset
Naomi Osaka‘s bid for a third straight Grand Slam title nearly vanished in an error-filled French Open first-round escape.
Osaka overcame 90th-ranked Slovakian Anna Karolina Schmiedlova 0-6, 7-6 (4), 6-1, avoiding becoming the second top women’s seed to lose her opening match at Roland Garros in three years.
“The most nervous I have ever been my entire life during a match,” Osaka said, noting it being her first time playing a Grand Slam as the world No. 1 and her first time playing on Court Philippe Chatrier. “I think you could see that in the first set. I was literally not hitting any balls in the court.”
She had more unforced errors (13) than points won (nine) in a 20-minute first set. Schmiedlova served for the match twice in the second set. But Osaka weathered the storm -- including a 12-minute, second-set rain delay -- to advance to a second-round match with two-time Australian Open champ Victoria Azarenka.
“Usually the nerves go away, but it kind of stayed the entire match,” she said. “Then I just felt like it was a fight of willpower.”
Osaka committed 38 unforced errors to 14 for Schmiedlova, who has lost her last 10 first-round matches at Grand Slams.
Osaka, 21, broke through at last year’s U.S. Open, beating Serena Williams in a memorable final. She backed that up by winning the Australian Open in January to become the first Japanese player to be ranked No. 1. She’s now trying to join Williams as the only women to win three straight majors in the last 21 years.
Osaka carried her best clay-court results to date into Roland Garros -- a semifinal and two quarterfinals -- though she withdrew from one event with an ab strain and the most recent with a thumb injury. Confidence defined Friday’s pre-tournament press conference, when she said it would be cool to win all four Slams in one year.
“You have to say it for it to come true, and you have to believe it with all of your heart, because if even one percent of you doesn’t believe it, then there is a chance that it won’t come true,” Osaka said.
At the 2017 French Open, Angelique Kerber became the first No. 1 woman to lose in the first round of any Grand Slam since Martina Hingis at 2001 Wimbledon. Then last year, Simona Halep was upset in the U.S. Open first round as the top seed.
Also Tuesday, Azarenka swept Jelena Ostapenko 6-4, 7-6 (4) in a rare first-round matchup of major champions. The Latvian Ostapenko is 0-3 at the French Open outside of her stunning 2017 run to the title. The No. 3 seed Halep began her title defense with a 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 win over Croatian-born Australian Ajla Tomljanovic.
In men’s singles action, No. 5 Alexander Zverev and No. 8 Juan Martin del Potro rallied for first-round wins.
Zverev, an 11-time ATP tournament winner who has reached just one Grand Slam quarterfinal, needed four hours to overcome Australian John Millman 7-6 (4), 6-3, 2-6, 6-7 (5), 6-3. A year ago in Paris, Zverev needed to win three consecutive matches that went the full five sets to get to his first Grand Slam quarterfinal.
In his first Grand Slam match since fracturing his right kneecap, the Argentine del Potro beat 75th-ranked Nicolas Jarry 3-6, 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 through wind and bits of rain.
Del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion and the runner-up there last year, started poorly in chilly conditions on Court Suzanne Lenglen. The frequently-injured del Potro was a semifinalist at Roland Garros last year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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