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By Richard Pagliaro | @Tennis_Now | Monday, February 12, 2024


Naomi Osaka defeated Caroline Garcia 7-5, 6-4 to advance to the Qatar Open second around and post her first Top 50 win since 2022.

Photo credit: Robert Prange/Getty

Pounding her palm against her thigh, Naomi Osaka took some shadow swings behind the baseline.

Even when the ball wasn’t in play, Osaka looked eager for its arrival.

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Riding an imposing first serves and timely strikes, Osaka defeated Caroline Garcia 7-5, 6-4 to advance to the Qatar Open second around.

Four-time Grand Slam champion Osaka posted her first Top 50 victory since the 2022 Miami Open avenging her Australian Open opening-round loss to Garcia last month.

“I mean it was really tough today,” Osaka said afterward. “I also felt really inspired because I haven’t been here in a while. Just to see everyone out here. And I saw a lot of Haitian flags and Japanese flags.

“I just want to say thank you because it means a lot to me and it means a lot to me and it’s really nice to play in front of everybody.”

In Melbourne, Garcia cracked 13 aces and did not face a break point, stopping former No. 1 Osaka 6-4, 7-6(2) in a superb Australian Open opener.

In today’s rematch, an opportunistic Osaka converted all three break points chances to snap a three-match losing streak.

Though she served just 49 percent, Osaka was nearly untouchable on first serving winning 32 of 37 first-serve points, saving seven of eight break points and pumping six aces. Osaka said she feels her return is sharper than it was in Melbourne.

"I mean, honestly I feel like I'm a much better player now," Osaka said. "I think in Australia my returns weren't as good, and I don't feel like I was as focused as I am now.

"I think that definitely made a difference, especially against such a good server like she is. I feel like I didn't really have the luxury to, I guess, not focus on every point."

Osaka earned the second win of her comeback advancing to the Qatar Open second round against Petra Martic. The winner of that match will face either fourth-seeded Ons Jabeur or Lesia Tsurenko.

Playing just the fourth tournament of her comeback since giving birth last July, Osaka said time off tennis has infused her with gratitude to play again—as well as the realization time is ticking on her tennis career.

“It’s really tough; I didn’t realize how tough it was until I stepped away for a little bit,” Osaka said. “It just made me a lot more grateful. I realized the athlete's life span isn’t that long so I really have to treasure every moment on the court.

“Interacting with everyone it’s nice to see so many faces. I really like seeing kids so it’s nice to see so many young kids out here.”

The former No. 1 came out firing, thumping a serve winner and ace for the opening hold.

Garcia answered with a love hold then pressured Osaka’s serve in the third game.

In an 11-minute game that spanned seven deuce points, Osaka saved a pair of break points—pounding a backhand winner on the first and pumping an ace on the second—to subdue stress and earn a hard-fought hold for 2-1.

Aggressive return positioning is Garcia’s trademark and she used it to bang out the first break. Hitting heavy returns, Garcia raced up to a short ball and spun a forehand winner breaking for 3-2.

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Garcia won her first 10 points in a row on serve and stamped a hold at 15 to extend her lead to 4-2 after 27 minutes.

Serving for the set at 5-4, Garcia ran into buzz saw backhands from Osaka. A backhand down the line earned Osaka double-break point. Playing strong defense to flick back a full stretch forehand, Osaka drew the error, breaking back to level after 10 games.

Digging out of a double-break point hole, Osaka held firm for 6-5.

Amping up her aggression, Osaka drilled a diagonal backhand winner for three set points on the Frenchwoman’s serve. Osaka unleashed a heavy backhand return right down the line scoring her second straight break at love to snatch the opening set that saw Garcia outplay her for long stretches.

"Yeah, I mean, obviously the first set, to not be able to finish it at 5-4, it made the match completely different for both of us," Garcia said. "But yeah, same as Australia, it was played on very few point, and on those point she was a better player today."

Sixty-eight minutes into the match, Garcia earned another break point. Trying to force the issue, she badly missed a backhand return down the line. Osaka unleashed successive serve winners holding for 3-2. By then, Osaka had saved seven of eight break points.

At the Australian Open last month, Garcia smacked 14 more winners than Osaka—34 to 20—and fired some key forehand strikes in the tiebreaker to avenge a 6-2, 6-3 loss to Osaka at the 2021 AO. In the latter stages of today’s rematch, Osaka’s forehand was fiercer and more reliable.

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The No. 15 seed put a forehand down the line into net to face match point in the 10th game.

Reading the Frenchwoman’s second serve, Osaka was bouncing inside the baseline when she banged a backhand return to close out a hard-fought victory in 88 minutes.

Osaka's recent first-round opponents have included 2022 Australian Open finalist Danielle Collins in Abu Dhabi and Garcia twice in her last three tournaments. Putting in the hard yards and facing dangerous foes has infused Osaka with some optimism, she said.

"I mean, it definitely is hard for me to not be tough on myself, but I think honestly after Abu Dhabi, I actually have more confidence in myself now, which is a little strange, but I think that, for me, was the worst thing that could happen," Osaka said of her first-round loss to Collins. "I feel like since I have seen the worst that can happen, I think, like, everything else is a plus. In Australia I know that I said I was only going to play Dubai, so I feel like I have to take these tournaments as extra credit.

"Someone said to me it's like a very expensive practice, so I don't know, after they said that, I felt pretty optimistic."


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