PARIS — Most tennis gamers would by no means admit freshly minted No. 1 rating was renting house of their heads. Simply one other day, simply one other match — these are the secure responses the thought police would advise.
Naomi Osaka will not be most gamers, so after sword-fighting her means out of a self-made first-round ambush on the French Open on Tuesday, she seemed straight at a questioner and defined why she’d been swamped by anxiousness.
“I imply, I can provide you logical causes, however I am not likely a logical individual,” Osaka mentioned. “Logical causes, first time taking part in a Grand Slam as No. 1. Gained the final two, so I type of wish to win this one actually unhealthy. I’ve by no means performed on Chatrier (heart courtroom) earlier than. And, yeah, I type of really feel like I am having the considered eager to show myself once more, so…”
The angst left hanging within the ellipsis is totally logical, even when expressing it out loud was unorthodox. Osaka sits atop the WTA rankings for the primary time as she takes on the key with the floor that’s the most slippery for her. She’s eager to put on her new mantle properly.
Osaka’s second-round opponent Thursday, Victoria Azarenka, faces a special, nearly fully inside strain: regaining her footing and id as a contender on the majors.
Azarenka had rose-colored glasses perched on her nostril as she regarded a small roomful of reporters after a first-round win over 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, an uneven however perilous opponent who demanded focus and high quality. Whether or not it was deliberate symbolism or not, optimistic pondering has been a required accent for Azarenka, nonetheless unseeded however transferring up the charts.
Now ranked No. 43, Azarenka infiltrated the WTA prime 50 final week for the primary time because the delivery of her son, Leo, in December 2016 and an ensuing custody battle that for a time restricted her skill to journey with him. Her aggressive building undertaking has had its setbacks, none harder for the two-time Australian Open champion than a first-round loss to then-110th-ranked Laura Siegemund of Germany in Melbourne 4 months in the past.
Former world No. 1 and two-time Australian Open champ Victoria Azarenka beat Jelena Ostapenko 6-Four, 7-6 (Four) within the first spherical, however No. 1 Naomi Osaka awaits within the second spherical. Clive Brunskill/Getty Pictures
But for a lot of this season, reunited together with her former coach Wim Fissette, Azarenka has risen to the event in tough early attracts in opposition to prime gamers. Serena Williams prevailed of their scintillating Indian Wells second-rounder, however Azarenka has since crushed a number of prime gamers, together with Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova and Elina Svitolina.
Thus, the prospect of assembly No. 1 Osaka this quickly in a Slam is nothing novel for Azarenka. “Like, each single week?” she mentioned, laughing. “Simply the standard second-round match.
“However, yeah, it is going to be thrilling for me. I like to problem myself in opposition to the perfect gamers. Final time we performed, it was very one-way match, and so I hope to do higher subsequent time.”
That will be a yr in the past on the Italian Open, the place the ascendant Osaka blew previous Azarenka 6-Zero, 6-Three, however that end result appears historic given every little thing that has transpired since.
“I imply, she’s been taking part in very well just lately, and there’s no means that it is going to be the same match to the one I performed her in Rome final yr,” mentioned Osaka, who famous she hadn’t seemed forward within the draw. “So I am anticipating, like, one of many hardest matches of the yr.”
Since March, Azarenka has meshed in a productive and exuberant doubles partnership with Australia’s Ashleigh Barty. Their title earlier this month in Rome was their first collectively and Azarenka’s second doubles championship this season.
Azarenka has been open about her work with a sports activities psychologist, her previous fears that being pregnant and supply would finish her profession, and her sense of urgency, at age 29, to benefit from the years whereas Leo is adaptable and never but of college age.
In her first Grand Slam match as world No. 1, Naomi Osaka struggled out of the gate however recovered to beat Anna Karolina Schmiedlova Zero-6, 7-6 (Four), 6-1. Susan Mullane/USA TODAY Sports activities
It is a relearning and reacclimating course of in direct distinction to what the 21-year-old Osaka is confronting — the brand new puzzles posed by her stature and the jury of her personal expectations embedded in each courtroom. Her first-round restoration in opposition to Slovakia’s Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, who bageled her within the first set and twice had an opportunity to serve out the match within the second, was “a type of matches the place you are not taking part in properly however it’s important to discover a option to win,” Osaka mentioned. “For me, I’ve simply begun studying how to try this.”
Each ladies have handled minor accidents through the clay-court season. Leg ache pressured Azarenka to retire within the Monterrey singles ultimate. Osaka awoke in Rome with ache and swelling in her taking part in hand that prompted her to withdraw earlier than the quarterfinals. She mentioned her damage wasn’t a consider her faltering begin at Roland Garros: “Most likely seemed like I felt one thing, however no, it was effective,” she mentioned with typical dry humor.
NBC analyst Mary Carillo mentioned she has noticed heft returning to Azarenka’s groundstrokes and dialed-up quantity on her serve — each outcomes of mounting confidence, in her opinion.
In Thursday’s second-round match, it will be that momentum versus a formidable however maybe not but completely irresistible power in Osaka, particularly on clay, the place the world No. 1 is least comfy. But Carillo mentioned she would not doubt the thought-precedes-action nature of the youthful participant’s said aim to brush the Slams this season.
“She did not say it dreamily,” Carillo mentioned. “I feel she has nice readability about what she needs to do. She appears very conscious of her private energy and she or he needs to stay as much as it.”