PARIS — After Naomi Osaka whipped a forehand well wide of the mark to put herself on the brink of being upset in the first round of the French Open on Tuesday, she spun toward her mother and her coach in the stands and flashed them a thumbs-up sign saturated with sarcasm.
The errant shot had given Osaka’s opponent, Anna Karolina Schmiedlova of Slovakia, the opportunity to score a major upset on her upcoming service game. As Osaka openly fumed in front of the fans scattered about Philippe Chatrier Court, it seemed her dream of winning this year’s Roland Garros and her third straight Grand Slam title was about to come to an abrupt and sloppy end.
“Do you guys see this amazing tennis I’m playing right here?” Osaka said later, explaining the message behind her sardonic hand gesture to her team. “I don’t even know what I wanted them to do.”
But it was clear what she wanted to do, and she did it. After breaking back in the next game and winning a second-set tiebreaker, the top-seeded Osaka overcame her nerves and negative emotions to defeat Schmiedlova, 0-6, 7-6 (4), 6-1, and avoid a crushing defeat.
After that, the only upward-pointing thumbs were for victory.
“I felt kind of bad after I did it,” Osaka said. “It was more like, I had to put my emotions somewhere.”
She advanced to a second-round matchup against Victoria Azarenka, who defeated Jelena Ostapenko, 6-4, 7-6 (4).
Osaka wasn’t the only top player who had to suppress her nerves on Chatrier: Simona Halep, the No. 3 seed and defending champion, also required three sets, defeating Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1.
At last year’s French Open, Halep beat Sloane Stephens to claim her only Grand Slam title. When she returned on Tuesday, she said, she felt the weight of new expectations she carried with her onto the very same court.
“But it’s a nice feeling,” she noted, “so, I can’t complain.”
For the 21-year-old Osaka, the combination of soaring hopes and the chilly, windy conditions made her more nervous than she had ever been on court, she said.
Clay has not been her best surface, and a year ago Osaka would not have dared to pine openly for the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. But after she won last year’s United States Open and this year’s Australian Open in succession, announcing and then confirming her status as the world’s best player, Osaka has earned the right to publicly yearn for a third consecutive Grand Slam trophy — even though no one has ever won their first three major titles in a row.
“I kind of want to win this one really bad,” she said Tuesday.
For a while, it looked as if she wanted it so much that it was distorting her normally efficient play. Schmiedlova, ranked No. 90, wiped out Osaka in a 23-minute first set.
Osaka went up, 3-0, in the second set, but Schmiedlova fought back and broke Osaka at 4-4 and again at 5-5, but her nerves tightened with the finish line in view. Once safely past the tiebreaker, Osaka cruised through the third set against a dejected Schmiedlova.
“I had maybe a little bit too much respect for her,” Schmiedlova said. “Or, I don’t know. I got a little bit nervous.”
Osaka committed 32 unforced errors in the first two sets, and just four in the third. More important, Osaka avoided becoming only the second top-ranked woman to lose in the first round; Angelique Kerber lost to Ekaterina Makarova in the first round in 2017.
While not considered an expert on clay, Osaka is coming off some of her best results on the surface. She reached the quarterfinals in tournaments at Stuttgart and Madrid and was into the third round at another in Rome before she withdrew with a right hand injury (she said she felt no discomfort Tuesday).
Ordinarily the winner of the two previous major tournaments would warrant attention as a strong favorite, but until Osaka proves she can go further than the third round — her previous best at Roland Garros — then Halep and the fourth-seeded Kiki Bertens will be favored ahead of her.
Still, Osaka has something neither of those two have at the moment: the No. 1 ranking. This is the first major tournament in which she is the top seed and the top-ranked player in the world, and she wants to prove she can be an all-around player and win on clay — and win with her new coach Jermaine Jenkins, who replaced Sascha Bajin after the Australian Open.
“I feel like I’m thinking too much about the number next to my name right now,” she said, adding, “I have never been in this position.”
It is a good position to be in, even worthy of a thumbs up.
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