Victoria Azarenka

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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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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Rain suspends Rafael Nadal’s opener at French Open; major champs fall

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Rain suspended Rafael Nadal‘s first-round match at the French Open as the 10-time champ led 6-4, 6-3, 0-3 over Italian Simone Bolelli on Monday.

The match will resume Tuesday, the same day Serena Williams plays her first Grand Slam match since winning the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant.

Nadal, 31, is trying to tie Margaret Court‘s record for singles titles at a Grand Slam event (Court won 11 Australian Opens, but seven came when it was the Australian Championships, an amateur event.).

The Spaniard is an overwhelming favorite, ranked No. 1 in the world and going 19-1 on clay this spring leading into Paris. He doesn’t have to worry about Roger Federer, who skipped the entire clay-court season for a second straight year.

Other notables advanced in straight sets Monday, including 2016 French Open champion Novak Djokovic and Caroline Wozniacki, winner of the last major, the Australian Open.

Djokovic — a former No. 1 now ranked 22nd, his worst spot since 2006 — beat 134th-ranked qualifier Rogerio Dutra Silva of Brazil 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, quickly recovering after dropping the opening two games.

Since winning the 2016 French Open to complete a career Grand Slam and become the first man in nearly a half-century to collect four consecutive major trophies, Djokovic has taken a step back. He has not added another major championship since, and after dealing with right elbow trouble for more than a year, he finally opted for surgery in February.

“I had to dig deep,” Djokovic said, discussing the work it took to try to rebuild his game.

“It has been difficult to face … the most, say, challenging injury that I have ever had. It’s been a long 12 months behind me, but I’m starting to play better, I feel like, in the past couple of weeks,” said Djokovic, who is being coached at Roland Garros by his former long-time mentor Marian Vajda. “Not thinking about the elbow. Playing pain-free, which is the most important thing at the moment.”

Another former French Open champion exited in the first round as Stan Wawrinka lost a five-set battle with Guillermo Garcia Lopez of Spain.

Looking a shadow of the player who won the title in Paris three years ago, Wawrinka struggled with his serve and hit an awful lot of unforced errors (72) in his 6-2, 3-6, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3 loss.

“I won three Grand Slams in my career, and I know what it takes to do it,” said Wawrinka, who was seeded 23rd and is ranked only 30th, territory unfamiliar to him since April 2008. “And my goal is to get to my top. Sooner or later, I will.”

Wawrinka only recently returned to the tour after missing three months to rest his left knee, which was operated on twice last August. He’s played 11 matches in 2018, going 4-7.

As Monday’s match stretched to 3½ hours, Wawrinka was hindered by the physical strain of playing in a fifth set for the first time since his French Open semifinal victory over Andy Murray a year ago. But that wasn’t the biggest impediment to success.

“It was more the difficulty of continuing to go for it mentally,” he explained.

The owner of one of the prettiest one-handed backhands in the sport, Wawrinka — who is again working with coach Magnus Norman — only managed 12 winners, compared with 35 unforced errors, with that shot. He finished with 72 unforced errors in all, 32 more than Garcia-Lopez, who never has been past the fourth round at a major tournament.

“There is no frustration. It’s just tough,” said the 33-year-old Wawrinka, who’s been as high as No. 3 in the rankings. “But I’m on the right way. It was very close today.”

Former top-ranked player Victoria Azarenka also bowed out, beaten 7-5, 7-5 by Katerina Siniakova.

Azarenka, a semifinalist in Paris five years ago, is currently ranked 84th after giving birth to a son in December 2016.

After a poor clay-court campaign punctuated by early exits in Madrid and Rome, the two-time Grand Slam champion was unable to turn things around against the 54th-ranked Siniakova.

She hit 38 unforced errors on the remote Court 18.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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FRENCH OPEN: TV/Stream Schedule | Scores | Men’s Draw (PDF) | Women’s Draw