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By Richard Pagliaro | Tuesday, February 19, 2019

 
Naomi Osaka

Kristina Mladenovic broke seven times sweeping Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka, 6-3, 6-3, to spoil her debut match as world No. 1.

Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve

Slapping another shot into the net, Naomi Osaka shoved the air in front of her in frustration as if admonishing a dance partner for stepping on her toes.

In her first match as world No. 1, the Australian Open champion was out of step and out of time.

More: Osaka On Sascha Split, Coaching Search

Australian Open doubles champion Kristina Mladenovic broke serve seven times sweeping the top-seeded Osaka, 6-3, 6-3, to charge into the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships round of 16.

It was Mladenovic's first career win over a reigning world No. 1.




Playing her first match since out-dueling Petra Kvitova in last month's Melbourne final and splitting from coach Sascha Bajin, Osaka struggled to find her rhythm and range, particularly on her serve and forehand, and trailed from start to finish.

Mladenovic burst out to a 3-0 lead before Osaka got on the board.

Osaka, who won just 17 of 49 serve points, fell to 9-2 on the season.

This match was a rematch of the 2018 Dubai opener, which Osaka won, 6-2, 6-2.

World No. 67 Mladenovic pounded Osaka's second serve and played cleaner tennis throughout. Mladenovic committed just nine unforced errors—16 fewer than the top seed—and converted seven of 10 break-point chances.

"It feels obviously amazing," Mladenovic told Annabel Croft afterward. "It was pretty loud for Naomi. I know you guys were mostly cheering for her. I understand she's an amazing player and a great young talent. She's an amazing champion.

"Beating the number one is always special."




The second set featured six straight breaks until Mladenovic stepped up with a confident close to seal a 65-minute win.

The 25-year-old Mladenovic, who opened the season suffering opening-round losses in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and St. Petersburg, prepared for this match watching TV—and tuning into her home muse.

"It's my home tournament," Mladenovic said. "I live here. I come here often. I just got ready really for the match. I watched a lot of tennis of hers the last few months.. I was ready for her big serves and big shots and took my chances."

Trying to shake off the rust from weeks of inactivity, Osaka was spraying her vaunted forehand and Mladenovic wisely went right at that erratic wing.

A biting serve set up the mid-court forehand she sought, but the top seed curled her crosscourt shot wide to face triple set point.

On the second set point, Osaka sailed a double fault gifting the Frenchwoman a third break and the opening set.

Mladenovic converted three of four break points and committed five fewer unforced errors than Osaka cruising through the 34-minute opener.

Matters degenerated for Osaka. The 21-year-old Japanese was hitting off the back foot as Mladenovic tore through eight of the first nine points in set two, sweeping a diagonal forehand to break for 2-0.




Trying to activate her feet and elevate her energy, the top seed responded with her sharpest game of the match blasting a forehand down the line to break back at love.

Shoveling a slice forehand into the short court brought Mladenovic two more break points. For the second time in three service games, Osaka dumped a double fault to donate the break.

Through the first set-and-a-half, the Australian Open champion looked more comfortable on return. Moving forward in the court, she broke back for 2-3 but lacked clarity on serve.

Flat-lining shots in an effort to end points prematurely, Osaka netted a flat backhand then hit a poor drop shot that sat up. A streaking Mladenovic pounded a forehand winner breaking for the sixth time.

When Osaka missed an open-court backhand down the line she waved her arms in dismay toward her box giving Mladenovic her seventh break and a 5-3 lead.

Showing no trace of nerves, Mladenovic slid a wide serve to displace her opponent then cracked a backhand drive down the line. Her 16th winner sealed a 65-minute triumph in style.

“This is simply such an inspiring experience for me tonight,” Mladenovic said. "This is my home. I live here and the crowd kept me going. And even when my first serve didn’t go well I didn’t have any pressure on the second serve and I came through."

Mladenovic will face Carla Suárez Navarro for a quarterfinal spot. The Spaniard stopped Shuai Zhang, 6-4, 6-4.

World No. 2 Simona Halep held off former Wimbledon finalist Genie Bouchard, 7-6 (4), 6-4.

"It was a good match because I won it," said Halep, who was runner-up to Elise Mertens in Doha on Saturday. "I tried to finish the points faster because I'm a little bit tired.

"She played well, the level was pretty good. At some points I really ran very well. I'm confident. I feel good on court even if I'm tired."



The third-seeded Romanian will face Lesia Tsurenko next.

Australian Open finalist Petra Kvitova hit seven aces and nine double faults fighting off Czech Fed Cup teammate Katerina Siniakova, 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-4.

"She was serving very well today and it was tough to break her," Kvitova said. "I’m glad that I was able to hold my serve until the chances in the third. That was kind of my point to make it.

"I’m not sure what I’m pleased with. Maybe I’m pleased with my comeback at the end of the match even though I lost the tiebreak. It’s pretty tough to be back, be up and play well. But I started again pretty well. I won my first two games in the second set and that was really helpful for me."

The third-seeded Kvitova will take on American qualifier Jennifer Brady, who upset 14th-seeded Caroline Garcia, 6-4, 7-5.

Garbiñe Muguruza defeated Saisai Zhang, 7-5, 6-2. The 12th-seeded Spaniard will play Elina Svitolina next.

The sixth-seeded Svitolina led 7-6 (4), 4-0, when opponent Ons Jabeur retired after aggravating a right shoulder injury.

Three-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber denied a pair of set points in the opening set of her 7-6 (4), 6-3 victory over Slovenia's Dalila Jakupovic.

 

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