Naomi Osaka was given a testing workout by Anna Blinkova as she began the defence of her US Open title on Tuesday but the world number one’s power and shot making ultimately proved too much as she prevailed 6-4 6-7(5) 6-2. The unseeded Blinkova raced into a 4-1 lead in the first set and a shock appeared to be in the works but Osaka cut down her errors to win five straight games and take the opener.
The tenacious Blinkova refused to back down, however, saving a match point on Osaka’s serve in the second before breaking her to set up a tiebreak, which the Russian won when Osaka sent a return into the net.
The 21-year-old Japanese responded by looking to her box and mimicked putting a gun to her head and pulling the trigger. Osaka stayed composed in the third, however, breaking Blinkova to take a 3-1 lead before sealing the first-round win with a blistering forehand that caught the line. It was an erratic performance for Osaka, who committed an unsightly 50 unforced errors, 28 more than her opponent, but also blasted 44 winners and pounded eight aces.
Osaka said the nerves that come with being a first-time defending champion played a part in her slow start and also gave credit to Blinkova for an impressive performance.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been this nervous in my life,” she said in an on-court interview at Arthur Ashe Stadium. “She played really amazing. And for me, I came off really slow. I never really found my rhythm. I fought as hard as I could and I managed to win.”
Osaka chose to look on the bright side of her unexpectedly competitive match against the world number 84. “It helps me a lot because I learn from the tougher matches. It helps me prepare to have to adjust my gameplan throughout the match.”
The good news for Osaka is that her left knee, on which she wore a black compression sleeve, did not appear to bother her as she raced around the court to track down balls.
The injury forced her to retire in the third set of her Cincinnati Open quarter-final against Sofia Kenin this month. She told reporters the knee was feeling better but stopped short of saying the problem was completely behind her.
Osaka, who is still managing the transition from being the hunter to being hunted, said she expected to see the best version of her opponents when she steps on the court nowadays.
“I know that everyone that I play is going to play super hard and they’re going to want to beat me,” she told reporters. “They’re probably going to play lights out.”
Next up for Osaka is a second-round meeting with Poland’s Magda Linette on Thursday.
Halep ends string of first-round US Open losses
Wimbledon champion Simona Halep snapped a string of early US Open exits with a 6-3 3-6 6-2 victory over American lucky loser Nicole Gibbs on Tuesday to reach the second round. The Romanian fourth seed, who fell at the first hurdle in New York the last two years, looked to be heading for yet another early exit but came out firing after losing the second set to Gibbs.
“She started to play much better in the second set. My energy was a bit lower so I was dominated in the second set,” Halep said in her on-court interview. “But then I just refreshed my mind and tried to push her back and come forward a little more.”
The 135th-ranked Gibbs had six set points while serving at 5-2 in the second but Halep coolly turned each one aside before winning the game only for her opponent to break right back and force a decider.
Halep then perked up as she opened the third set with a break and raced out to a commanding 5-1 lead that proved too big a hole for Gibbs, who failed to qualify for the US Open but entered the main draw after other participants withdrew.
“Am I allowed to dream big again for this tournament?” said Halep, who reached the semi-finals here in 2015 and quarter-finals in 2016 before two consecutive first-round exits.
Up next for Halep, who is vying to become the first woman since Serena Williams in 2012 to follow a Wimbledon win with a US Open triumph, will be American qualifier Taylor Townsend.
Gauff delivers on the hype in first-round US Open thriller
Teen sensation Cori “Coco” Gauff lived up to the hype surrounding her US Open debut on Tuesday, battling back to beat Anastasia Potapova 3-6 6-2 6-4 in a back-and-forth thriller. The outlook appeared bleak for the 15-year-old American when she was broken to open the second set but Gauff broke back in the next game to seize the momentum and ultimately level up the contest in front of a supportive crowd.
But hard-hitting 18-year-old Potapova, despite needing medical attention to her shoulder, refused to go down without a fight and Gauff had to earn her place in the second round.
Asked how she turned the match around, wildcard Gauff pointed to the fans inside Louis Armstrong Stadium. “Honestly it’s because of the crowd,” she said. “You guys were amazing. No matter where I was on the court I could hear somebody supporting me and I’m really grateful for that.”
Gauff also had words of praise for her opponent, who battled hard in the third set. “I was trying to really dig deep. I was like, ‘You got to make her play. She’s not going to hand it to you,” said Gauff.
“I really don’t remember the match too well because everything is still a blur. But I do remember I think that four-all game, it was just like a lot of battling.”
Gauff entered this year’s tournament amid high expectations after reaching the last 16 at Wimbledon earlier this year. She next faces 26-year-old Timea Babos of Hungary in the second round at Flushing Meadows.
Riske battles back to oust Muguruza
American Alison Riske recovered to beat twice Grand Slam champion Garbine Muguruza 2-6 6-1 6-3 at the US Open on Tuesday and set up a second-round clash with another major winner Jelena Ostapenko. Riske was her own worst enemy at the outset, committing 15 unforced errors and four double faults in a shaky first set, but settled down and finished with 39 winners to the Spaniard’s 24.
Former world number one Muguruza, who also fell in the first round of Wimbledon this year, sealed her fate with a forehand into the net on match point for her 37th unforced error.
“I’m really proud of the way I fought through the entire match even though the first set didn’t go as planned,” the 29-year-old told reporters. “I played a couple of sloppy games on my serve and I knew going into the second that if I was going to have any chance of coming back I was going to have to manage them a little bit better,” she said.
“I just stayed present and tried to bring the fight. It worked today.”
Muguruza, who parted ways with her long-time coach Sam Sumyk after Wimbledon, said there were no more easy matches with the raft of new talent and the staying power of savvy veterans.
“I remember not even that long ago, a few years ago, it was different. You had a difference between the top players and not top players,” she said. “Now you feel like if you’re not 100% every day you have matches — like today, you know, all your opponents can play great. It’s much more equal.”
Riske will have her work cut out when she faces 2017 French Open champion Ostapenko for the first time on Thursday after the Latvian won 6-3 7-6(7) against Serb Aleksandra Krunic.
Canada’s Andreescu eases into second round
Canada’s rising talent Bianca Andreescu was cheered to a 6-2 6-4 victory over 17-year-old American Katie Volynets in the first round of the US Open on a noisy Court 10 on Tuesday. The 15th seed kept her 413th ranked opponent on the run with superior net play and fended off four of five break points in a gritty defensive performance in front of her supporters.
Andreescu, 19, fired off 29 winners compared to six from Volynets to the delight of the decidedly pro-Canada crowd, who occasionally broke into cheers of “Let’s go Bianca, let’s go!”
Asked about the unusually large and enthusiastic crowd out on Court 10, Andreescu said: “These Canadians are wilding. They’re coming everywhere. It’s really nice to see all of the Canadians cheering me on in different cities.”
Andreescu has been the subject of speculation over whether she could be the sport’s latest star, despite having not yet made it past the second round of a Grand Slam.
Andreescu stunned Germany’s three-times major winner Angelique Kerber in the final at Indian Wells this year and claimed the Rogers Cup this month after Serena Williams was forced to retire with a back spasm.
On Sunday, the Canadian was named this year’s women’s US Open Series Breakout Performer. Andreescu next faces lucky loser Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium in the second round on Thursday.