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Naomi Osaka, at her most nervous, avoids historic French Open first-round upset

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Naomi Osaka‘s bid for a third straight Grand Slam title nearly vanished in an error-filled French Open first-round escape.

Osaka overcame 90th-ranked Slovakian Anna Karolina Schmiedlova 0-6, 7-6 (4), 6-1, avoiding becoming the second top women’s seed to lose her opening match at Roland Garros in three years.

“The most nervous I have ever been my entire life during a match,” Osaka said, noting it being her first time playing a Grand Slam as the world No. 1 and her first time playing on Court Philippe Chatrier. “I think you could see that in the first set. I was literally not hitting any balls in the court.”

She had more unforced errors (13) than points won (nine) in a 20-minute first set. Schmiedlova served for the match twice in the second set. But Osaka weathered the storm — including a 12-minute, second-set rain delay — to advance to a second-round match with two-time Australian Open champ Victoria Azarenka.

“Usually the nerves go away, but it kind of stayed the entire match,” she said. “Then I just felt like it was a fight of willpower.”

Osaka committed 38 unforced errors to 14 for Schmiedlova, who has lost her last 10 first-round matches at Grand Slams.

Osaka, 21, broke through at last year’s U.S. Open, beating Serena Williams in a memorable final. She backed that up by winning the Australian Open in January to become the first Japanese player to be ranked No. 1. She’s now trying to join Williams as the only women to win three straight majors in the last 21 years.

Osaka carried her best clay-court results to date into Roland Garros — a semifinal and two quarterfinals — though she withdrew from one event with an ab strain and the most recent with a thumb injury. Confidence defined Friday’s pre-tournament press conference, when she said it would be cool to win all four Slams in one year.

“You have to say it for it to come true, and you have to believe it with all of your heart, because if even one percent of you doesn’t believe it, then there is a chance that it won’t come true,” Osaka said.

At the 2017 French Open, Angelique Kerber became the first No. 1 woman to lose in the first round of any Grand Slam since Martina Hingis at 2001 Wimbledon. Then last year, Simona Halep was upset in the U.S. Open first round as the top seed.

FRENCH OPEN: TV Schedule | Scores | Men’s Draw | Women’s Draw

Also Tuesday, Azarenka swept Jelena Ostapenko 6-4, 7-6 (4) in a rare first-round matchup of major champions. The Latvian Ostapenko is 0-3 at the French Open outside of her stunning 2017 run to the title. The No. 3 seed Halep began her title defense with a 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 win over Croatian-born Australian Ajla Tomljanovic.

In men’s singles action, No. 5 Alexander Zverev and No. 8 Juan Martin del Potro rallied for first-round wins.

Zverev, an 11-time ATP tournament winner who has reached just one Grand Slam quarterfinal, needed four hours to overcome Australian John Millman 7-6 (4), 6-3, 2-6, 6-7 (5), 6-3. A year ago in Paris, Zverev needed to win three consecutive matches that went the full five sets to get to his first Grand Slam quarterfinal.

In his first Grand Slam match since fracturing his right kneecap, the Argentine del Potro beat 75th-ranked Nicolas Jarry 3-6, 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 through wind and bits of rain.

Del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion and the runner-up there last year, started poorly in chilly conditions on Court Suzanne Lenglen. The frequently-injured del Potro was a semifinalist at Roland Garros last year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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World Alpine Skiing Championships on for 2021 after request to delay rejected

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GENEVA (AP) — A request by the organizers of next year’s skiing world championships in Italy to postpone the event by one year was rejected Thursday by the International Ski Federation.

FIS ruled that the event will go ahead from Feb. 9-21, 2021, in Cortina d’Ampezzo — the highlight of an Alpine season that faces challenges to find safe protocols for international travel and attending races in Europe, North America and China.

The Veneto region of northern Italy was hit hard by the coronavirus and the season-ending World Cup races in Cortina in mid-March were canceled. That week-long event was to be a test for the 2021 worlds.

“The last month of efforts to come to this solution demonstrates the strong collaborative spirit of the ski family and stakeholders.” FIS president Gian-Franco Kasper said.

Organizers in Italy have said they expect losses of about 30 million euros ($34 million) if the worlds are also canceled. They asked for a postponement to March 2022, which would be only weeks after the Beijing Olympics.

“But we will be ready in any case and we will show that these world championships can change the history of a region despite the current difficulties,” Alessandro Benetton, president of the Cortina organizing committee, said in a statement.

Italian racer Sofia Goggia, the 2018 Olympic downhill champion, said she was “happy for Cortina because it will host the first major international event after the coronavirus epidemic.”

Cortina, which hosted the 1956 Olympics, will co-host the 2026 Winter Games with Milan and use the worlds as a showcase for the resort.

The women’s World Cup downhill on the Olympia delle Tofane course each January is one of the most scenic in the sport with a signature jump between tall outcrops of jagged rock.

The Dolomites venue was awarded the 2021 worlds by FIS after missing out as a candidate four straight times from 2013-19.

MORE: Anna Veith retires, leaves Austrian Alpine skiing in unfamiliar territory

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Russia track and field athlete clearance frozen due to unpaid fine

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MONACO (AP) — The program allowing Russian track athletes to compete internationally will be frozen because the country’s federation failed to pay a fine on time, World Athletics said Thursday.

The Russian track federation, known as RusAF, owes a $5 million fine and another $1.31 million in costs for various doping-related work and legal wrangles. World Athletics said RusAF missed Wednesday’s deadline to pay.

World Athletics said it would freeze the work of the Doping Review Board, which vets Russian athletes who want the “authorized neutral athlete” status that allows them to compete internationally, and its taskforce monitoring RusAF’s anti-doping reforms.

World Athletics said both bodies will be “put on hold” until its council meets to discuss the situation at the end of July.

“RusAF is letting its athletes down badly,” World Athletics president Sebastian Coe said in a statement. “We have done as much as we can to expedite our ANA process and support RusAF with its reinstatement plan, but seemingly to no avail.”

RusAF president Yevgeny Yurchenko earlier told the Tass state news agency that his federation’s finances were damaged by the coronavirus pandemic and that it had asked for more time to pay.

World Athletics’ statement didn’t directly address that issue, but said Russia hadn’t indicated when it would pay.

Russia was fined $10 million by World Athletics in March, with $5 million suspended for two years, after the federation admitted to breaking anti-doping rules and obstructing an investigation.

The Athletics Integrity Unit said fake documents were used under the previous management to give an athlete an alibi for missing a doping test.

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