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Osaka advances to fourth round at Australian Open

Naomi Osaka

Japan’s Naomi Osaka reacts after winning a point against Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-Wei during their third round match at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)


MELBOURNE, Australia -- Naomi Osaka had the umpire warning her for spiking her racket in the first set, and checking on her welfare when she tumbled near the baseline in the next.

The U.S. Open champion had a topsy-turvy third-round at the Australian Open on Saturday, getting within two games of elimination before finding her range against a tricky Hsieh Su-wei and winning 5-7, 6-4, 6-1.

In her courtside interview, Osaka apologized to the crowd for getting the umpire’s warning for smashing the racket, and told them to pretend it didn’t happen.

“Hopefully learn from that moment,” she said later. “I tend to keep a lot of things bottled up. I just felt like in that moment sort of releasing it was easier than just keeping it inside.”

It wasn’t until she was down a break in the second set that Osaka paused, smiled and figured out a way past the 33-year-old Hsieh, who plays with a double-handed grip on both sides and uses a mixture of spin and slice and drop shots.

Hsieh has taken some top 10 players out of majors before, reaching the fourth round last year here after beating Garbine Muguruzu and at Wimbledon, where she beat top-ranked Simona Halep.

Hsieh was one point away from a 5-2 lead in the second set, serving at 40-0, when Osaka turned her frustration into something positive and went on a roll to win five consecutive points. She lost only one more game in the remainder of the match.

“For me, it was a moment like I walked into the match knowing that she was going to do a lot of strange things, no offense,” Osaka said, smiling. “But she was just playing so well, and I think I got overwhelmed. And then early in the second set I tried doing things that I know isn’t necessarily my game.

“Then after a while, I just started thinking that I’m in a Grand Slam. I shouldn’t be sad, I’m playing against a really great player, so I should just enjoy my time and try and put all my energy into doing the best that I can on every point.”

Her only trip up from there was genuine. She rolled her ankle early in the game where she was serving for the second set and was sprawled on the court. Umpire Manuel Absolu called out to see if she was OK. She said no, but later signaled a thumbs-up.

“Yeah, that’s just funny to me,” she said. “He was like, `Naomi, are you OK?’ I mean, I was, but I wanted to see his reaction if I said no.”

The 21-year-old Osaka’s public profile has grown exponentially since she beat Serena Williams in the final in New York. She’s still cultivating her image and humor is a key. So expect some more.

Until the U.S. Open last September, Osaka’s run at Melbourne Park last year had been her best performance at a Grand Slam tournament. She would have considered anything less than reaching the second week as a setback.

“I’m happy with how I fought,” Osaka said. “For me, that’s, like, one of the biggest things I always thought I could improve, because it sort of seems like before I would accept defeat in a way.”

Osaka said she’d have to regroup quickly for her fourth-round match against No. 13 Anastasija Sevastova, who she beat in three sets in the Brisbane International quarterfinals in the first week of the season. Sevastova beat No. 21 Wang Qiang 6-3, 6-3.

Osaka has steadily improved under the coaching of Sascha Bajin, a former hitting partner of Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki. But she’s also open to advice from one of the greats, particularly when she’s training at Chris Evert’s tennis academy in Boca Raton.

Asked what words of wisdom Evert had imparted, Osaka saw a chance to stir things up.

“Not that I’m, like, ragging on Sascha, but it’s a bit more ... it feels like I should listen to her more, in a way, because - oh, I’m going to get so much hate - you know, because I have seen what she did, and she’s also played,” Osaka said. “So it’s a little bit more believable.”

Next practice session with Bajin should be fun.