Indian Wells | Revitalised Osaka beats Stephens as Watson and Boulter bow out

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It was a particularly windy day out in the California desert on Thursday, but it did not stop a revitalised Naomi Osaka from blowing away Sloane Stephens in a battle between two former Grand Slam champions at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells.

My old self wouldn’t have been grateful for playing in a big stadium with fans. My past self might have been extremely tense, thinking I have to win. I might have been too tense to think logically. I’ve learned to enjoy my time more. This moment I’m playing tennis is something I trained my whole life for. Naomi Osaka

Britain’s Heather Watson and Katie Boulter, however, were not so successful, both losing in straight sets to Tereza Martincova and Jasmine Paolini respectively.

With swirling winds of up to 36 mph, Osaka said it was the windiest match she had ever played, but she prevailed 3-6 6-1 6-2 to score her first over Stephens, the 2017 US Open champion.

“I haven’t played in wind in a while, so this was very new to me,” Osaka said in her on-court interview on the Stadium Court after her win. “I felt like I was fighting for my life.

“I was playing against her, I was playing against this wind. It was crazy.

“But I kept thinking that she was going through the same circumstances as me, so I just have to will myself to try as hard as I could.”

The two had not played each other since the 2018 WTA Finals in Shenzhen, and Osaka lost the pair’s first-ever meeting in Acapulco, Mexico back in 2016.

Now both far off their career-high rankings of World No 1 and World No 3, Osaka is No 78 while Stephens is No 38, they battled it out as sustained gusts wreaked havoc on service tosses and ball bounces.

“It was a bit frustrating but it was also funny at the same time because there was debris flying around the court,” Osaka admitted.

“I was just grateful that there were fans watching the match. Apparently, it was very cold so the fact that they stuck around really meant a lot to me.”

The 4-time Grand Slam champion from Japan is unseeded at Indian Wells and, although she streaked to a 3-1, 30-0 first-set lead, Stephens adjusted to the wind better at the start, playing with margin to win 5 straight games to snatch the first set.

Sloane Stephens mastered the wind better than Naomi Osaka at the outset at Indian Wells, but then fell behind

© Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

In fact, Stephens was tremendous in the opener, breaking Osaka’s serve 4 times with a first-serve percentage of 74 percent to the Japanese’s 50 percent.

Osaka got herself into gear in the second, racing out to a 4-0 lead as her serve and defence suddenly improved, and when she pounced on a short ball from Stephens that caught the line, her swinging back-hand volley had levelled her the match at a set apiece.

Stephens, who won a title in Guadalajara last month, took a 2-0 lead and held break point chances for 3-0 in decider, but failed to convert, which allowed Osaka to seize the momentum and take the final 6 games, sealing her first career win over the American when her forehand failed to clear the net on match point.

The Japanese has been doing mindset training for 9 months, and once she found her rhythm and power, blasting winners and showing why she was long called the best hard court player in the world, the result became a foregone conclusion.

Just ten months ago, the Japanese seemed so fragile, withdrawing from the game she had dominated, but she now appears to have found her bearings again, and looks relaxed, positive and, above all, happy, at peace with herself.

“My old self wouldn’t have been grateful for playing in a big stadium with fans,” she said. “My past self might have been extremely tense, thinking I have to win.

“I might have been too tense to think logically.

“I’ve learned to enjoy my time more. This moment I’m playing tennis is something I trained my whole life for.

“When I’m 70 or something it will probably feel like a small chapter.

“I have to enjoy it when I still can – just having appreciation of every tournament…I’m just trying to enjoy myself…I felt the difference in Australia when I played [and lost] my last match against Amanda [Anisimova].

“I actually left the playing ground saying…‘I did my best and I had match points’.”

Next up for Osaka, who won this WTA 1000 event in 2018, is Veronika Kudermetova, the 21st seed who received a bye.

Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk got past Belgian Maryna Zanevska, who was born in Odessa, after a battle that lasted over 3 hours

© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Martincova breezed past Watson, 6-2 6-1, in a dominating hour 19 minutes, and the Czech will play defending champion Paula Badosa of Spain in the next round, while Italy’s Paolini was a 6-3 6-2 winner over Boulter after an hour 21 minutes.

With Ukraine continuing to dominate the news, teenager Marta Kostyuk made it through a tight 3-hour, 2-tiebreak match against Maryna Zanevska from Belgium, 6-7(5) 7-6(6) 7-5, and will play another Belgian in Elise Mertens, the 20th seed, in round two.

Current events are affecting both players, with Zanevska having been born in Odessa but playing under the Belgian flag since 2016, but she still has family living in Ukraine.

The 28-year-old, who won her first WTA singles title in Gdynia, Poland last July, was a point away from her first main-draw win at a WTA 1000-level event in her first appearance in Indian Wells in 8 years, but Kostyuk, the higher-ranked of the two, rallied for victory.

The World No 54 saved 2 match points in the second set tiebreak, and came from 3-5 down in the decider to seal her emotional come-back win.

“Honestly, in the current mental state that I’m in, it was very tough to go on court, Kostyuk admitted afterwards. “I didn’t know what to expect from myself, I didn’t know what to expect from my body.

“When I woke up this morning I thought, ‘I’m not going to do it, I can’t win it. I just tried to find a way.

“She was playing amazing tennis. My main goal was to fight and I fought.

“It was a tough comeback. … Everyone is fighting how they fight. My job is playing tennis and this is the biggest way I can help in the current situation.”

After 3 hours and 9 minutes, one of the longest matches of the season thus far, the tears flowed from them both, and they shared a long embrace.

“Her parents are in Ukraine,” Kostyuk said. “They’re in a calmer area but everyone is afraid.

“I told her she played unbelievable and that everything is going to be OK. Our parents are going to be OK.”

Yulia Putinseva also advanced to round two with a win over qualifier Ashlyn Krueger

© Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Elsewhere Aliaksandra Sasnovich moved into the 2nd round after her opponent, Camila Osorio, retired from their match while trailing 6-4, 5-0.

The Colombian 20-year-old, who is at a career-high ranking of 35 after reaching the Monterrey final last week, was suffering from a left thigh injury.

Sasnovich beat Osorio in the same round of Indian Wells last year and, from there, she went on to defeat Grand Slam champions Emma Raducanu and Simona Halep back-to-back before falling to eventual finalist Victoria Azarenka.

The World No 59, who reached her 3rd career Hologic WTA Tour singles final earlier this year at Melbourne Summer Set 2, will next face 2-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova from the Czech Republic in round two.

Amanda Anisimova needed just 53 minutes to ease past fellow American Emma Navarro, a wild-card into the draw, winning 6-2 6-2.

The victory sets up an enticing 2nd-round match against Canada’s Leylah Fernandez, a duel that will feature the two youngest title-winners of the 2022 season so far.

While Anisimova sailed, Shelby Rogers mounted a confident come-back to defeat Spain’s Nuria Parrizas Diaz, 6-1 5-7 7-6(3) in 2 hours 53 minutes.

The American trailed 1-5 in the final set before winning 5 consecutive games and then dominating the decisive tiebreak.

The 29-year-old will face No 10 seed Jelena Ostapenko from Latvia, who is undefeated against Rogers, having won all 3 of their previous matches.

Daria Saville was one of two Australians who advanced on Thursday at Indian Wells

© Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

In other Day 2 results, Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva also cruised into round two, beating American Ashlyn Krieger, 6-3 6-2, while qualifier Kaja Juvan from Slovenia got past France’s Oceane Dodin, 6-3 6-3, Czech Ana Bouzkova defeated Wang Qiang from China in a contest between 2 qualifiers, 6-3 7-6(5), lucky loser Magdalena Frech from Poland was a 6-2 7-5 winner over Egypt’s Mayar Sherif, and Kristina Kucova from Slovakia outlasted Romania’s Elena-Gabriela Ruse, 4-6 6-4 6-1.

World Doubles No 1 Katerina Siniakova gritted out an impressive singles win over another Romanian, Irina-Camelia Begu, 6-2 4-6 6-4, while two Australians also advanced, Daria Saville, a qualifier, took out Zhang Shuai, 6-3 6-2, and lucky loser Astra Sharma, who beat Poland’s Magda Linette, 6-4 7-6(1), and, finally, Belgian Alison Van Uytvanck was a 7-6(3) 6-4 winner over Hungarian qualifier Dalma Galfi.

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