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.

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