Naomi Osaka escapes Victoria Azarenka at French Open

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Naomi Osaka says she doesn’t really notice the No. 1 next to her name anymore. She is quickly earning another label at the French Open: escape artist.

Osaka rallied past former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 in the second round, winning her second straight match from a set down on Thursday. It’s her 16th straight win at a major, with seven of those going the full three sets.

“She kind of killed me in the first set, and I just kept trying to find a way to stay positive,” Osaka said. “I didn’t dip at all during this match, and she was just playing so well. I was just waiting for her to get a little bit tired.”

Azarenka, a mom who is eight years older than Osaka, was up a break in the second set, then failed to convert a break point to serve for the match before Osaka battled back. The two-time Australian Open champion was denied what would have been her biggest win since having son Leo on Dec. 19, 2016.

“I kind of felt like a challenger,” said Osaka, who gets Czech Katerina Siniakova next in her quest to win a third straight major. “Like, I know she went to the semis here before, so obviously she has a lot more experience here. She won Grand Slams and she was No. 1 way before I was. I’m still kind of new at this”

But not new at grinding out wins and performing under pressure.

After beating Serena Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open final, Osaka won four matches at the Australian Open that went three sets, including in the semifinals and final. Osaka has noted the strength shown in a comeback from down 5-1 in the third set to beat Donna Vekic last month to reach her first clay-court semifinal in Stuttgart, Germany.

“She’s been a lot in those situations where those margins are really small,” Azarenka said. “Proving that she deserves to be where she’s at right now.”

Osaka never made it past the third round in three previous Roland Garros appearances. She was nearly bounced Tuesday, getting bageled in 20 minutes in her first set of the tournament against the world No. 90 who had lost 10 straight Grand Slam matches.

Osaka said it was the most nervous she had ever felt during a match, noting it being her first time playing a Slam as the world No. 1 and first match on Court Philippe Chatrier.

“It’s not outside pressure,” she said. “It’s more like I feel like I have to win. I acknowledge that’s kind of a toxic trait, but, like, it’s gotten me this far, so … ”

Also Thursday, Williams beat Japanese qualifier Kurumi Nara 6-3, 6-2 to reach a third-round date with countrywoman Sofia Kenin. If Osaka and Williams each win their next two matches, they meet in the quarterfinals. Williams, like Osaka, lost her first set of the tournament.

Defending champ Simona Halep needed extra time to dump Magda Linette 6-4, 5-7, 6-3 after losing the last four games of the second set. Halep later said she felt a little bit sick with stomach problems.

The Romanian’s draw could be wide open if Aleksandra Krunić beats No. 27 Lesia Tsurenko when that match resumes Friday at 6-6 in the third. Tsurenko is the only player left in Halep’s quarter ranked higher than Halep’s first-round opponent, No. 47 Ajla Tomljanovic.

In men’s action, No. 1 Novak Djokovic rolled Swiss Henri Laaksonen 6-1, 6-4, 6-3. He gets Italian qualifier Salvatore Caruso in third round. Djokovic’s potential semifinal foe, No. 4 Dominic Thiem, outlasted tricky Kazakh Alexander Bublik 6-3, 6-7 (6), 6-3, 7-5.

No. 5 Alexander Zverev swept Swede Mikael Ymer 6-1, 6-3, 7-6 (3) in a match that took half the time as his first-round five-setter. Zverev is in Djokovic’s quarter.

No. 8 Juan Martin del Potro assured all of the top 10 male seeds reached the third round, rallying past Yoshihito Nishioka 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-2. Del Potro, who missed the Australian Open in January and Indian Wells in March with a knee injury, said he felt hip and knee pain during the 3-hour, 46-minute duel.

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

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World Cup Alpine season opener gets green light

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After checking the snow on the Rettenbach glacier in Soelden, Austria, FIS officials announced Thursday that the traditional World Cup season opener is set to go ahead as planned Oct. 26-27 with men’s and women’s giant slalom races.

Current conditions at Soelden show a solid 30 inches of snow at the summit. The race finishes at an altitude of 2,670 meters (8,760 feet), far above the currently snowless village.

The first races of the season are never guaranteed to have enough snow, though last year’s men’s race at Soelden had the opposite problem, being canceled when a storm blew through with heavy snowfall and high winds. 

France’s Tessa Worley won the women’s race last year ahead of Italy’s Frederica Brignone and U.S. skier Mikaela Shiffrin, who would go on to dominate the rest of the World Cup season.

The Soelden weekend is followed by three dormant weeks until the season resumes Nov. 23-24 in Levi, Finland. The World Cup circuits then switch to North America. The men will run speed events Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Lake Louise, Alberta, then head to Beaver Creek, Colo., for more speed events and a giant slalom Dec. 6-8. The women run slalom and giant slalom Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Killington, Vt., and head to Lake Louise the next weekend.

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Olympic marathon and race walk move from Tokyo to Sapporo draws some pushback

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In the wake of a dropout-plagued set of world championship endurance races in Qatar, moving the 2020 Olympic marathons and race walks from Tokyo to the cooler venue of Sapporo is a quick fix for one problem, pending the potential for untimely heat waves.

But the move has drawn some opposition for a variety of reasons.

First, many organizers and politicians appear to have been caught by surprise. Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, was “taken aback” and Sapporo’s mayor, Katsuhiro Akimoto, learned about the move from the media, Kyodo News reported. Koike even sarcastically suggested that the races could move all the way northward to islands disputed by Russia and Japan.

South African sports scientist Ross Tucker suggested that running in heat and humidity poses an interesting challenge for athletes, some of whom may be able to catch up with faster runners by preparing for the conditions.

British marathoner Mara Yamauchi made a similar point, saying the move was unfair to those who already were preparing for the heat, humidity and other conditions.

Belgian marathoner Koen Naert said he will make the best of the change but complained that some of his preparation and every runner’s logistical planning would no longer apply.

The angriest athlete may be Canadian walker Evan Dunfee, who placed fourth in the 2016 Olympic 50km race and nearly claimed bronze as a Canadian appeal was upheld but then rejected. He says runners and walkers can beat the conditions if they prepare, which many athletes did not do for the world championships in Qatar.

“So why do we cater to the ill prepared?” Dunfee asked on Twitter.

The move also takes athletes out of the main Olympic city and takes away the traditional, tough less frequent in modern years, finish in the Olympic stadium.

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