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By Richard Pagliaro | Friday, March 26, 2021


Naomi Osaka celebrated her Tour return taking her game to a familiar powerful place.

Playing her first match since she captured her fourth major championship at last month's Australian Open, Osaka powered into the Miami Open third round for the third time with a 7-6(3), 6-4 victory over Ajla Tomljanovic on Grandstand Court.

More: Osaka Flying High in Return

Winning is addictive and Osaka is hooked by its buzz. The surging Osaka stretched her winning streak to 22 matches—she hasn't lost a match since the pro circuit resumed last August—and raised her 2021 record to 11-0.



On a sticky, breezy day, Tomljanovic posed plenty of problems—she served for the first set at 5-4 and held triple break point in Osaka's first service game of the second set—but the world No. 2 continued cracking menacing first serves to set up her first strike.

Though she served just 49 percent, Osaka pumped 13 aces, dropped just seven points on her first serve and saved seven of nine break points in a 98-minute victory.

The former world No. 1 grew up in South Florida and marked her homecoming with some dynamic shotmaking and an eye on improving.

"It's a little bit hotter than L.A.,  but for me I grew up here so I really like the heat," Osaka told Tennis Channel's Prakash Amritraj afterward. "It's my first match since Australia, so I felt a little nervous. I'm happy I was able to get it done in two.

"For me I think what I want to improve, I'm not sure if it's nerves or just I'm a bit rusty, I think my decision-making on some shots was kind of questionable. But I think overall I learned as the match was going on."

Osaka's mom, Tamaki, was watching court side for the first time in nearly 14 months as she shook off some rust from recent inactivity.

"I feel like definitely the conditions were really tough today. Like it was definitely windy, but I don't remember thinking too much about it, so clearly it didn't bother me that much," Osaka said. "I would say more I was getting used to playing a match again because it's been a while. For me, I was just trying to get in the motion of things.

"So my mom's last match she watched me play was the 2020 Australian Open. Of course I wanted to win a lot, especially because she was here today. But I think what she wanted the most, she just wanted me to save a towel for her. Definitely going to do that."

The game's premier server took the court holding serve a WTA-best 82 percent of the time in 2021. But Osaka opened the match with an ace and shoveled a flat backhand into the middle of the net to gift Tomljanovic the opening break.

Shaking off the slow start, Osaka broke right back then banged two aces holding for 2-1.

Both women are big hitters with a fondness for taking the first strike. Consequently, rallies were relatively brief at the outset. Tomljanovic framed a forehand return down the line coaxing an errant Osaka forehand earning her second break for 3-2.




When Tomljanovic dodged a break point and slid a serve winner down the T to hold for 5-3 a frustrated Osaka skipped her Yonex racquet across the court in disgust.

Serving for the set, Tomljanovic couldn't stop her opponent's surge. Osaka drilled a diagonal forehand winner helping her reach triple break point. A biting backhand return down the line set up another inside-out forehand as Osaka broke back at love to level after 10 games.

Staring down a love-30 deficit in the 11th game, Osaka erased another break point and threw down three aces quieting the stress for 6-5. Tomljanovic whipped the wide serve to set up a forehand strike down the line forcing the tie breaker.

Osaka befuddled her opponent with a 62 mph second serve that fluttered like a knuckleball in the breeze for 5-3 then torched her ninth ace down the middle for set points at 6-3. Quick off the mark, Osaka ran down a drop shot angling back a reply to force an error and take the set after 54 minutes.

Afterward, Osaka revealed her ongoing inner dialogue in her first match since Melbourne. 

"I think like today I was having a hard time trying to structure the point the way that I found most efficient, and it was really hard to fight off thoughts like, you know, You were playing much better in Australia, why can't you just play that same way here?" Osaka said. "But I know that it's a process. For me, I just kept trying to learn from every point that I played."

The 27-year-old Tomljanovic turned the screws in Osaka's opening serve game of the second set only to see the US Open champion repel all three break points in a hard-fought hold.

Eighty-five minutes into the match, Tomljanovic's fourth double-fault put her in a double break point bind. Osaka's normally-reliable backhand failed her on the second break point and the world No. 77 slid an ace wide holding for a 4-3 second-set lead.

Tennis Express

All the good work Tomljanovic did throughout the set unraveled in the ninth game when she failed to cover the line on the down the line approach and was handcuffed by a deep Osaka return to face break point. The Aussie hit her fifth double fault as Osaka broke for 5-4 and stepped up to serve for the match.

Serving into the sun, Osaka shanked a serve that floated high in the air like a runaway birthday balloon and double faulted to face a break point. Osaka came right back firing three stinging serves to stretch her winning streak to 22 matches. 

It's the third-longest WTA unbeaten streak since 2010 behind Serena Williams (27 wins between 2014 and 2015) and Victoria Azarenka (26 wins in 2012). 

"Honestly every tournament feels like a fresh start so I'm not really thinking about that at all," Osaka said. "For me, this feels like a new adventure in a way. I don't really think how many wins you have in a row matters at all."

Next up for the four-time Grand Slam champion is either Serbian qualifier Nina Stojanovic or 26th-seeded Yulia Putintseva. 

 

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