Bidding for her third consecutive major title, Naomi Osaka is getting familiar with three-set matches, though she is still unfamiliar with the top ranking.
The oui earring, spun in cursive across Naomi Osaka’s right lobe, was a fitting accessory on Thursday, as the 21-year-old said yes to another three-set victory.
Ranked No.1 in the world, Osaka has become a habitué of three-set contests. She won six of her last nine Grand Slam matches this year in matches that have gone the distance. The latest was a 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 claw back over veteran Victoria Azarenka at Roland Garros on Thursday, advancing her to the third round and keeping the possibility of a third-straight major title alive.
“I have this mindset that I feel like I can win if it gets down to the wire, if I have to break a person, I feel like I have the ability to do that,” Osaka said after the second round. “I just don’t want to leave the court with regrets and if there’s something that I think I could have done better I want to try to fix it during the match.”
Her ability to apply fixes during matches catapulted her to two Grand Slam titles and the World No. 1 ranking in less than a year. It’s pulled her into an elite group of champions, ones who find ways to win even on bad days. After entering last year’s French Open ranked No. 20 and exiting in the third round, Osaka is now proving to be the type of problem solver the game of tennis rewards in the long run.
Her recent three-set routes to victory say less of a mortal tendency to drop sets when nervous and distracted, especially as a new face at No. 1, and speak more to her brilliance in outlasting tough moments: when strategy changes are needed, when margins are thin, when points are important.
“She's proving that she deserves to be where she's at right now,” Azarenka said of her Japanese opponent.
Azarenka, a former World No. 1 and two-time Australian Open champion, recently reentered the top 50 after a difficult few years following the birth of her son that later saw her entangled in a custody battle. The 29-year-old from Belarus showed few signs of personal trouble on Thursday, as her signature aggression and fighting spirit were on full display. She took the first set and trailed 5-4 in the second, on the verge of a major upset. Victory was nigh yet unreachable, as Osaka found the answer late in the set.
“I was just waiting for her to get a little bit tired,” Osaka said after the match. “I felt like once I was towards the back of the court and she was more dictating, then the point was immediately over. I felt like I had to be more aggressive, and that's kind of hard to do while you're down and you have to win a lot of games in a row.”
Osaka noticeably changed her strategy in the deciding set. She began to step into shots, generating deeper groundstrokes that pushed Azarenka back and made the court shorter and wider. She took a comfortable 5-1 lead in the third set that started to slip away when Azarenka fought back to reach 5-3. Osaka let out shrieks of frustration after several missed points. In the stands, her mom, Tamaki, took deep breaths to calm her nerves, and her worries were soon dissipated on match point when Osaka placed a serve down the T, forcing her opponent’s shot to trail long. After nearly three hours, she did it. Her adjustments had paid off. Osaka abashedly pulled her visor over her face and flashed a big smile at the crowd.
“Today I kind of felt like a challenger,” said the self-effacing Japanese star. “I'm still kind of new at this.”
She may be new at being World No. 1 and the pressure that comes with fame. But Osaka isn’t new to solving her way out of trouble.
“[Osaka] has obviously a lot of confidence playing right now,” Azarenka said after their match. “So in those moments, she's been a lot in those situations where those margins are really small.”
Next up for Osaka is unseeded Katerina Siniakova who eliminated the No. 29-seed Maria Sakkari in an equally tight three-set match. Siniakova, 23, will be another feisty baseline challenger for Osaka if she can contain her unforced errors and serve at a high percentage. The two faced each other in Doha for the first time early last year; Osaka won in straight sets.
It should be a straightforward match for the World No. 1, but victory in three sets with plenty of “Come on’s!” and shrieks will come as no surprise.