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By Richard Pagliaro | Thursday, March 10, 2022


In a clash of Grand Slam champions, Naomi Osaka soared through the final six straight games stopping Sloane Stephens 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 in Indian Wells.

Photo credit: Getty

Wind gusts propelled flags flapping into a frenzy above the stadium and sent a seat cushion careening across the court at one point.

Down a break in the final set, Naomi Osaka kept calm amid the storm.

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Osaka streaked through the last six straight games subduing Sloane Stephens 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 to win her Indian Wells opener in her first match since the Australian Open in January.

Despite the long layoff, Osaka stayed positive amid frustrating swirling conditions and a one-break deficit in the last set.

"It was a bit frustrating, but also funny at the same time," Osaka said after her first match since losing to Amanda Anisimova in the Australian Open third round. "There was like debris flying around the court and stuff. And I’ve never played in a match that was that windy so it was also like a new experience.

"I was just grateful there were fans watching the match. I didn’t feel it when I was playing but apparently it was very cold so the fact they stuck around meant a lot to me."

The 2018 champion Osaka will face 21st-seeded Veronika Kudermetova in a second-round match of the loaded third quater of the draw.

Today's first-rounder match of crazy wind gusts and wild momentum shifts. Stephens won five straight games to seal the opening set, Osaka surged through four consecutive games to start the second set and stormed through the final six straight games to beat Stephens for the first time in three meetings.

"Honestly, I didn’t know what the score was. I had to ask [coach] Wim [Fissette] afterwards," Osaka said. "I was just really concentrating on trying my best on every point.

"As tight as I was in the first two games of the final set, I just figured I learn from every match that I play and I learned a lot in my three-set match against Amanda Anisimova in Australia. And I just told myself that I’ll have opportunities for sure and I just need to capitalize on that. I know I was hitting a lot of double faults in the first game of the third set so I was just trying to fix that."

The women who won US Open titles back-to-back came face to face for the first time in nearly four years. Playing just her third tournament since she fell to Leylah Fernandez at the US Open last September, Osaka showed signs of rust as well as some stretches of superb shotmaking at critical stages.

The 78th-ranked Osaka fought hard, kept her composure and continued to crack her drives with ambition elevating her game over the final two sets. Osaka hit five aces against five double faults and fought off 12 of 17 break points.

Facing the speedy Stephens who was coming off winning her seventh career title in Guadalajara, Osaka called it a "very important" first step on her climb from quasi ranking oblivion back toward the Top 10.

"I feel like this match was a very important match for that," Osaka said. "I’ve trained since Australia and to play against Sloane and she just won a tournament and I’m sure she’s feeling really confident about herself.

"That was a really good test for me. But at the same time I do need to play a lot more matches and I do need to give myself the opportunity to get more into the swing of things. I feel like I played well in Australia, but I keep taking these long breaks and I’m aware that I’m taking them. But hopefully I’ll get more into the flow of things with this U.S. hard court swing even though it’s just two tournaments."

Wind gusts eclipsed 30 mph creating unruly conditions that demanded attentive footwork, precise ball striking and plenty of patience.

Struggling to tame her toss in the bluster, Osaka double faulted to open and yanked a pair of forehand errors gifting the break in the opening game. Catching her toss three times, Stephens struggled with the wind as well double-faulting back the break in the second game.

Seeing Stephens taking some pace off the serve to get it in amid breeze, Osaka was stepping several feet inside the baseline to return. Hammering a backhand crosscourt, Osaka broke again for a 3-1 lead 16 minutes into the match.

The 2018 champion was up 3-1, 30-love when Stephens settled in and began making more balls. Stephens pounced on a second serve tomahawking a forehand return deep down the middle to break back in the fifth game.

Facing triple break point in the seventh game, Osaka unloaded some of her heaviest serves of the match erasing all three break points. Stephens played some superb defense flicking back a few digs to convert her fourth break point for a 4-3 lead.

Stephens dug in and denied three break points in a five-deuce game that spanned nine minutes. When the dust settled, Stephens had a hard-fought hold and a 5-3 lead.

A wild wayward forehand from Osaka gave Stephens two se points. When the former No. 1 slapped a forehand int the middle of the net, Stephens snatched a one-set lead after 47 minutes.

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Playing more stable tennis amid stressful conditions, Stephens won 14 of 18 points played on Osaka’s second serve in the set. The Japanese nearly doubled the American’s unforced error count—31 to 16—in the first set.

Setting aside her five-game slide, Osaka reined in her stinging drives giving herself a bit more margin. Tempering her power with patience, Osaka plowed through successive breaks charging out to a 3-0 second-set lead.

Osaka won four straight games to start the second set then stormed back from triple break point down thumping her second ace down the T to hold for 5-1.

The world No. 78 finished the set with a flourish flowing through nine of the final 10 points and drilling a backhand drive volley to force a decider after 76 minutes. Osaka doubled Stephens’ winners—10 to 5—and played cleaner tennis committing just nine errors in that second set.

Tennis Express

After all that good work, Osaka spit up a couple of double faults donating the break to start the final set. Stephens had three break points in the third game for a 3-0 lead, but Osaka refused to crack.

The 2020 US Open champion held firm and broke back.

As the wind began subsiding both women turned up the heat collaborating on a crackling crosscourt forehand exchange that saw Stephens scorch an 86 mph forehand. Shrugging that strike off, Osaka held for 3-2.

Dialing in the drives that sailed away in the wind in the opening set, Osaka torched her two-hander down the line breaking at love for 4-2.

Afterward, Osaka, who has used the word "grateful" frequently throughout her two tournament pressers, said the shift in mind set of realizing the moment rather than dwelling on the outcome helped spark her third-set surge.

“I think my old self wouldn’t have been grateful if that makes sense,” Osaka said. “So for me I came into the match just being grateful to be on the stadium court playing against Sloane because I knew that’s what people wanted to see and I was happy to be playing a match that people were tuned into.

"And maybe my past self would have been extremely tense thinking about like I have to win this match and stuff like that. So I think there’s two different mind sets."

Osaka scored her fifth break closing in one hour, 53 minutes when Stephens scraped a low forehand into net.


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