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By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka rallied from a set down winning 20 of 21 points played on her serve stopping Coco Gauff 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in Cincinnati.

Photo credit: Getty

Questions have swirled around Naomi Osaka since her Roland Garros withdrawal.

Staring down a set and a break deficit today, Osaka unleashed a statement serve to blow open today's blockbuster battle vs. Coco Gauff.

Watch: Emotional Osaka Sheds Tears in Cincinnati

Firing near-flawless service games in the final set, Osaka rallied past Gauff 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 into the Cincinnati round of 16.

Osaka won 20 of 21 points played on her serve and pumped five of her 11 aces in the final set in her first WTA Tour-level match since she beat Patricia Maria Tig in her Roland Garros opener in May. 

The second-seeded Osaka will face either Swiss Jil Teichmann for a place in the quarterfinals. In a clash of wild cards, the Teichmann topped American Bernarda Pera 6-1, 6-4. 

It was Osaka's fifth straight Western & Southern Open win following her run to the 2020 final when the tournament was staged at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows. Osaka conceded a walkover in the 2020 final due to a hamstring and went on to amass a 23-match, hard-court winning streak sweeping successive Grand Slam title at the US Open and Australian Open.

The 17-year-old Gauff  broke for a one-set, 2-1 lead.

That's when Osaka made two pivotal adjustments: she drifted back a couple of steps on return to give herself a longer look at the American's serve and she started cracking 115 mph-plus serves into all corners of the box to set up some ferocious first-strike forehands.

"I feel like this match I changed my return position quite a lot, and mainly I wanted to be very close in, but she had a really good second serve, so I felt like I had to keep switching around," Osaka said. "So that's what that was.

"Yeah. I feel like for me I just, depending on who I play, but definitely I would love to be closer in."

It's a big week and emotional return to North American hard courts for Osaka, who lit the cauldron at last month's Tokyo Olympic Games and conceded feeling the pressure of medal expectations falling to Marketa Vondrousova in straight sets.

Returning to Cincinnati this week, Osaka broke down in tears during her pre-match presser responding to Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty's question about how she balances her media platform and responsibilities with sponsorship obligations. Osaka, whose father is Haitian and mother is Japanese, pledged to donate her Western & Southern Open prize money to relief efforts in Haiti after the country was struck by a 7.2 earthquake on Saturday deepening her desire to make another winning run. Osaka said reflecting on all the chaos going on in the world has given her fresh perspective on the joys of her job: competing in front of fans is a victory itself.

"I'm wondering if I was scared because, like, sometimes I would see headlines of like players losing and then the headline the next day would be like a collapse or they're not that great anymore," Osaka said. "So then I was thinking me waking up every day, for me, I should feel like I'm winning.

"You know, like the choice to go out there and play, to go see fans that people come out and watch me play, that itself is an accomplishment. And I'm not sure when along the way I started desensitizing that. Like it started not being like an accomplishment for me. So I felt like I was very ungrateful on that fact."

Three primary positives from today's match: When Osaka needed to shift to a higher gear on serve she did so smoothly, she continued cracking her forehand with damaging intentions even after ceding the opening set with some untimely errors and the former No. 1 kept calm and showed her conviction firing four love holds in a row including slashing an ace on match point to close in one hour, 53 minutes.

Serving with more conviction than she showed in Tokyo, Osaka thumped successive aces down the T sealing a love hold for 3-2. Gauff answered with a love hold of her own to level after six games.

Even after eight games, the US Open champion blinked.

Osaka sailed a couple of forehands, including whacking a wild diagonal forehand to gift the break and a 5-4 lead to the teenager.

Prior to this highly-anticipated third clash between the pair, Gauff said she felt the massive hype before her 2019 US Open loss to Osaka distracted her. Two Grand Slam meetings vs. the former world No. 1 taught Gauff to go after her serve and try to take the first strike.

“I definitely did learn a lot from both matches, actually,” Gauff said. “For me, the second match I learned that I can perform well under the pressure, and that I do have a lot more fun on the court when I try not to focus on the expectations of other people and myself.”

A confident Gauff served out the opening set at 15. Attacking her second serve with ambition, Gauff won 10 of 15 points played on her second-serve in the opening set.

Resetting, Osaka stamped a love hold to start the second set.

Osaka took a few steps back on return to get a better look at Gauff’s serve and amped up the speed of her forehand and backhand.

The second seed was squealing with frustration when she missed a forehand to face triple break point. Osaka sent a backhand beyond the baseline capping her sloppiest game to gift-wrap the break and a 2-1 second-set lead to Gauff.

The four-time Grand Slam champion was cranking deep drives right through the middle of the court as she rattled out errors to break back in the fourth game. Osaka surged through six straight points going up 3-2 after 55 minutes.

Osaka kept cracking the ball with point-ending intentions and Gauff started misfiring more. The Delray Beach-born baseliner coughed up a couple of double faults giving Osaka her second break and a 5-3 lead.

Curling a crosscourt forehand, Osaka seized set point with a firm “come on!” Sliding a serve down the T, Osaka thought Gauff’s stretched forehand return would fly out. It didn’t and a lunging Osaka couldn’t handle the sidespin. Osaka smiled off that miscue to earn a second set point.

When Gauff’s forehand flew long Osaka had the second set to force a decider. From a break down at 1-2, Osaka was thumping the ball with more vigor winning five of the final six games of the set.

Creeping forward to pounce on the American’s second serve, Osaka tightened the screws to start the final set. Gauff committed her seventh double fault then netted a backhand trying to change direction as Osaka earned her third break to open the set.

Osaka backed up the break taking her seventh of the last eight games to go up 2-0.

Swinging freely and firing with explosive power, Osaka rocketed a 121 mph ace sealing her third love hold in a row for 5-3. Osaka zapped her 11th ace sealing the win in style and embracing Gauff at net.

Earlier, Grand Slam champions Angelique Kerber and Petra Kvitova advanced to the round of 16. Three-time Grand Slam champion Kerber fought off 12 of 18 break points out-dueling fourth-seeded Elina Svitolina 7-5, 2-6, 6-4. Kerber will face either former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko or Australian Open finalist Jennifer Brady next.

The left-handed Kvitova conquered Veronika Kudermetova 6-2, 6-4. Wimbledon quarterfinalist Karolina Muchova converted five of eight break points defeating 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu.


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