Osaka Returns To Indian Wells At Peace With Herself, Win Or Lose

Naomi Osaka (photo: WTA Tour video)

INDIAN WELLS/WASHINGTON, March 11, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

Former World No. 1, four-time Grand Slam champion and 2018 BNP Paribas Open titlist Naomi Osaka returned to the Southern California palm desert for the first time since 2019 and took center stage on Stadium 1 at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden Thursday.

After all, big names do help sell tickets – and when they win, such as Osaka did, they have the ability to help sell even more tickets.

The much-anticipated appearance by the 24-year-old Osaka was part of Day Two of the combined ATP/WTA 1000 combined event in Tennis Paradise, which included the bottom half of the women’s draw to wrap up the first round and the start of men’s singles play, in which there were 16 matches spread across the nine competition stadiums on a sunny but very windy day.

Osaka’s first-round opponent was 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens and it was the Japanese superstar’s first match in the past 48 days in this matchup of former Top-5 foes. It’s the kind of match that was part of a star-studded day session set against the backdrop of a picturesque setting and one that came about because the former Top 10 major champions have both fallen from the upper tier of the women’s rankings and weren’t ranked high enough to get seeded.

Through inactivity, Osaka has plunged to No 78 after her points earned from winning the 2020 US Open and 2021 Australian Open titles dropped off. Largely because of poor results, Stephens fell to No. 64 by the end of last year. However, the American’s recent title victory at Guadalajara, her first since 2018, has lifted her to No. 38 this week.

“Honestly, I feel like I’m at peace with myself, which I think is a really good feeling to have as a person,” said Osaka on Wednesday during her media day interview session. “I’m like really grateful [for the fans’ support.] It really meant a lot to me.”

It was in 2018 that Osaka, then ranked 44th, won the title at Indian Wells that was a springboard to her success in winning four major titles, starting with the US Open later that same year.

While it may be too early to tell if Osaka’s 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 win over Stephens, completed in one hour and 53 minutes, will be another building-block moment, it was very encouraging to see her work herself out of several tight jams – some of her own doing – thanks to five double faults, 43 unforced errors and five breaks of her serve. However, Osaka delivered when it counted the most and bravely battled the windy conditions.

Down 0-2 and facing a double-break point, she strung together six straight winning games in the final set to win going away and outpointed Stephens 90-77. Next, Osaka will play No. 21 seed Veronika Kudermetova in the second round on Friday.

“I just want to say thank you so much [for your support],” Osaka said during her on-court interview.

“Sloan is such a champion. Hopefully, next time we play will be in more ideal conditions. But it was great to be back out here again.”

Osaka said that losing to Amanda Anisimova in the third round at this year’s Australian Open reminded her that she was human. It’s quite an acknowledgment for from a cross-cultural icon, who last year suffered bouts of anxiety and depression that came to a head at the 2021 French Open after she refused to submit to mandatory press conferences and withdrew after winning her first-round match.

“I just think like after winning the Grand Slams, I thought like it was kind of an automatic thing,” Osaka said Wednesday. “So, I think just losing [to Anisimova] kind of like reminded me that I was human, not saying that I didn’t think I wasn’t human.

“I don’t know. It was kind of, I think, needed.”

Osaka, who had been idle since losing to Anisimova at Melbourne, said she’s learned to enjoy her time more. “Playing tennis is something that I’ve trained my entire life for, like for years and years. But then when I’m 70 or something it will probably be a small chapter for me.

“So, I have to enjoy it while I still can.”

Day Two highlights

• No. 59 Mackenzie McDonald of the United States began play on Stadium 1 and saved seven first-set points en route to his upset of 48th-ranked Marton Fucsovics of Hungary, 7-6 (11), 7-5, to improve to 7-7 this season. He did this despite hitting 35 unforced errors during the two-hour and 22-minute match, while Fucsovics committed 46 unforced errors. McDonald outpointed his opponent 95-97 and advanced to face No. 19 seed Carlos Alcaraz.

• No. 42 Tereza Martincova of the Czech Republic defeated Great Britain’s Heather Watson, 6-2, 6-1, which was the first defeat for a British player this year. Four players came through women’s qualifying, including the 113th-ranked Watson. No. 122 Harriet Dart won Wednesday evening, but the winning run ended for the British at nine matches. There are four British men competing in singles including defending champion Cameron Norrie, who is seeded 12th, and No. 88 Andy Murray.

• No. 62 Benjamin Bonzi of France, who last month won an indoor Challenger 80 event in Cherbourg, France, advanced to face No. 21 seed Lorenzo Sonego after upsetting 57th-ranked fellow Frenchman Arthur Rinderknech, 6-3, 7-5. It was Bonzi’s 10th win in his last 12 matches in all competitions, which includes a semifinal run at the Open 13 Provence in Marseille.

• Australian qualifier Daria Saville, ranked 409th, took advantage of the slow court conditions and upset No. 41 Zhang Shuai of China, 6-3, 6-2, in 91 minutes, just four days after Zhang won the Open 6ème Sens – Métropole de Lyon title in France. Saville, who hit 14 winners and saved 12 of 13 break points she faced, outpointed Zhang 71-57. Next, Saville will play No. 9 seed Ons Jabeur.

Borna Coric made his 2022 debut after coming back from shoulder surgery. In his first match in just over a year, the 167th-ranked Croatian (using a protected ranking) lost to No. 45 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain, 6-7 (5), 6-0, 7-5. Davidovich Fokina will oppose World No. 13 Denis Shapovalov in the second round.

• No. 43 Jenson Brooksby of the United States took early command of his match against Spain’s 79th-ranked Roberto Carballes Baena and rolled to a 6-1, 6-4 victory in an hour and 27 minutes to advance to the second round. Brooksby, who finished with 17 winners and dropped serve just once, put away the win on his fourth match point after Carballes Baena saved two match points during an eight-minute 16-point game and another in the final game. He outpointed his opponent 63-39. Brooksby’s next opponent will be No. 25 seed Karen Khachanov.

• Australian wild card Nick Kyrgios needed six match points to put away No. 60 Sebastian Baez of Argentina, 6-4, 6-0, in 71 minutes during the featured evening session match on Stadium 1. The 132nd-ranked Kyrgios wrote “Be positive!” on the camera lens following his first-round victory – and that’s the kind of demeanor he showed on court. “I feel fresh again, I feel healthy. … I feel good.” Kyrgios said during an on-court interview.

Kyrgios hit 22 winners to 17 unforced errors, converted four break points and outpointed Baez 66-47 to advance to the second round against No. 32 seed Federico Delbonis.

• Other men’s winners included: Filip Krajnonivic, Fabio Fognini, Laslo Djere, Lorenzo Musetti, Jack Sock, Federico Coria, Pedro Martinez, Sebastian Korda, and qualifiers J.J. WolfChristopher Eubanks and Tomas Machac.

• Among the other women’s winners were: Yulia Putintseva, Magdalena Frech, Alison van Uytvanck, Jasmine Paolini, Kristina Kucova, Marta Kostyuk, Astra Sharma, Katerina Siniakova, Aliaksandra Sasnovich, Shelby RogersAmanda Anisimova, and qualifiers Kaja Juvan and Marie Bouzkova.

Thursday’s BNP Paribas Open results

Friday’s BNP Paribas Open order of play

Zverev: ‘The biggest mistake of my tennis career’

During his pre-tournament news conference, men’s World No. 3 Alexander Zverev said he’s ready to move on after committing “the biggest mistake of my tennis career.”

“I know apologizing is probably not enough. It was embarrassing for me [then], it still is embarrassing for me now. It’s not a nice feeling.”

Zverev said he hopes people will forgive him – “there a lot of mental pressure on us, a lot of things happening that people don’t see on the court and that we’re all human” – and that if he ever has a similar incident, the ATP has every right to ban him.

“If I do that again, it means I haven’t learned. Right?” Zverev said. “I think everybody in life deserves a second chance. Everybody makes mistakes, but if you repeatedly make mistakes, it means you haven’t learned. So, it if happens again to me, you should ban me. But, I’ll do everything for it to not happen, not only in the next year but in my whole career from now on.”

Around the Indian Wells Tennis Garden

• Thursday was City of Indian Wells Day at Tennis Paradise. Residents of the city received complimentary tickets to a full-day of matches. Activities around the grounds also included a lunch-time tennis talk with two-time Grand Slam mixed doubles champion Gabriela Dabrowski of Canada, and a fan Q & A at the Bank of the West booth with Diego Schwartzman.

• Fans were eager to catch a glimpse of 21-time Grand Slam champion and three-time Indian Wells titlist Rafael Nadal at practice and afterward, hoping for a chance of getting a selfie or an autograph. Nadal was more than accommodating to his many fans.

“I have been here for more than a week,” Nadal said in press, quoted by the ATP Tour website. “I always enjoy it here. It is one of my favourite tournaments without a doubt. I take it day by day, just trying to enjoy the moment. It is unexpected for me to be in this position, so I am enjoying it every day and trying to enjoy the fact I am playing well. I have already won three titles this year and that is amazing for me.”

• It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Wednesday night, TV cameras caught a glimpse of Russian Anna Kalinskaya‘s tennis shoes, which came with a universal message.

• American Shelby Rogers, ranked 49th, is one of 18 U.S. women in the women’s singles draw. She is now working with former WTA Coach of the Year Piotr Sierzputowski, the 29-year-old Polish who mentored Iga Swiatek to her first Grand Slam title at the 2020 French Open. Rogers faced Monterrey semifinalist Nuria Párrizas Díaz of Spain, ranked 61st, in the opening round and pulled out a 6-1, 5-7, 7-6 (3) victory that lasted two hours and 49 minutes. Rogers rallied from 1-5 down in the final set after she was unable to convert a match point in the second set ahead 5-4.

By the numbers

Naomi Osaka has won more major singles titles – four – than anyone ranked in the women’s Top 100. Osaka’s four Grand Slam titles have come in the past 11 Grand Slam singles tournaments she’s competed in.

“Quotable …”

“I don’t really get to play doubles a lot. I think it’s a very relaxing way of getting something fresh into the game, not falling into that pattern of always playing singles, which is my favorite thing to do. But it’s quite refreshing sharing some moments with Feli in the doubles field and having a little bit of fun. I honestly wasn’t aiming for any titles that week [in Acapulco]. I just enjoyed every single moment with him. Regardless of whether we lost or won, it was all about having the best time I could out there and playing some amazing points with him.”

Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, who is playing doubles with Spain’s Feliciano Lopez, as told to Tsitsipas and Lopez won the Abierto Mexicano Telcel doubles title last month.