May 30, 2019
Naomi Osaka doesn’t fear the clay any more. And that should send a warning to all the French Open favourites.
The power and fizz Osaka generated in the final set against Victoria Azarenka sent shockwaves through Roland Garros.
The low trajectory of her missiles made them unplayable.
This was Osaka at her best, the player who took the US and Australian Opens by storm.
She was all but written off by most experts, despite being world number one and also the top seed in Paris.
We also warned she had little chance against a resurgent Victoria Azarenka unless she raised her game considerably.
Almost too late, she did so. In breathtaking, swashbuckling style.
Azarenka commanded the first set, even led 5-1. She handled Osaka’s recovery well to prevail at 6-4, then broke and led 4-2 in the second. She might easily have broken once more to end all doubt.
As it was, Azarenka still looked to be serving comfortably for 5-3 and seemed ready to close the match out.
We all prepared to write “told you so.”
Then Osaka’s stubborn streak kicked in. She broke back, leveled at 5-5, took the lead and earned set points.
Fighting back in a classic, Azarenka saved three. But Osaka wasn’t to be denied parity and earned her 7-5 riposte.
Both women left the court. Osaka returned promptly, Azarenka didn’t. Eleven minutes later, the Belarusian was ready once more.
Some called it disrespectful gamesmanship. If it was, the older woman certainly paid a heavy price.
Osaka unleashed her missiles from both sides and Azarenka simply couldn’t take the firepower.
Almost in the blink of an eye, the 21-year-old appeared to have beaten her more fancied foe into submission at 5-1.
Magnificently, however, Azarenka saved one match point then another. She gained a foothold at 5-3 and the comeback looked possible.
But Naomi simply has too much talent and power.
She had conquered her doubts about the surface and now she conquered any lingering doubts about her own superiority. Match over, 6-3.
And if Osaka can do this on the Parisian clay, what might she manage on the grass of Wimbledon, if she shows the same adaptability? The mind boggles.
As is her nature, Osaka still spoke more like a vulnerable child than a tennis powerhouse at the end of her awesome display.
She claimed, ‘I choked (at 5-1) on this side and nearly choked (at 5-3) on the other side. I am very emotional.’
To an extent, all that is true. But try telling the defeated Azarenka she had just faced an emotional choker.
Serena Williams had also been written off by many before the tournament. Yet she too turned on the power to defeat Japanese qualifier Kurumi Nara 6-3, 6-2.
Apart from a seemingly never-ending sixth game in the first set, Williams looked in firm control against the outsider. Her movement and composure was encouraging. But there will be greater challenges ahead for the 37-year-old.
Meanwhile for Britain’s Kyle Edmund, the big challenge now is to get fit for Wimbledon.
Already two sets down to Pablo Cuevas and trailing in the third, Edmund called time on his tournament due to an injured left knee.
He said later: ‘I hope to be fit for Wimbledon and the only way I won’t play on grass is if it gets worse through training between now and the first match. I definitely anticipate I’ll play.’
That’s great news for British tennis fans looking for a home hero to follow in the Wimbledon men’s singles, as well as the impressive Jo Konta in the women’s tournament.
In the mean time we’ll continue to enjoy all the drama of Roland Garros as the French Open whets our appetite for the big one – Wimbledon 2019.