"I felt like I was fighting for my life!" the former no. 1 player in the world, Naomi Osaka said seriously. She had won the Indian Wells title more than three years ago. The battle proved real in her first round with another U.S.
Open winner, Sloane Stephens. But the odds weren't that good for Osaka to win being that she'd played Stephens twice before and couldn't come up with a victory. Another tangible is that she just didn't have many match plays to feel really confident as long ago.
The young Japanese came into the match with far less tournaments than Stephens, who had just won her first title, her career seventh in Guadalajara. She decided to skip the Monterrey Open in Mexico to rest up for the 'Desert' tournament, one of a fan and player favorite.
But it was between the wind and the drifting sun-streaked court along with a bit of nerves making it difficult for both women to get comfortable. Osaka was sluggish in the opening set and had it stressful to find her rhythm over Stephens who appeared to be slicing and bashing her strokes for winners.
At some points, Naomi just shook her head trying to unravel how she'd play Sloane but the first set proved to be a trial by error which Osaka lost 3-6. In order to give a good fighting chance, Naomi had to put forth a winning style she was accustomed to long ago.
She corrected her errors from the prvious set and put her game together with a minimal amount of unforced errors crawling to a 4-0 lead in the second set. Stephens had gotten a game on her scoreboard but Osaka was too clever and played smart to win that set at 6-1.
Stephens had a lot to prove, but her game was below par and she started picking up unforced errors that Osaka had in the initial set. It was windy from start to finish and the Japanese admitted the conditions as not being ideal.
"I haven't played in wind for a while...I was playing against her and the wind," Osaka explained. Stephens had experienced the unbearable wind conditions too but Osaka wanted the match more and said, "..I just willed myself to fight as hard as I could."
As the match of one hour and 53 minutes started to wind down, Osaka's rhythm had come back and much of the shots were present too. The crosscourts were stining and Naomi worked hard to find the open court to produce winner after winner.
Osaka's below par performance in the opening set but winning the match at 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 proved something to Osaka and the Indian Wells crowd. She enjoyed her play and said "it was really great to be out here. The energy was so cool."
Naomi Osaka had gotten used to being no. 1 some time ago but didn't forget to give Stephens some credit saying "Sloane is such a champion." Naomi knows the fight doesn't stop here and must get and keep her game tight for the second round, in hopes that it will be productive as the one she just won.