Naomi Osaka digs deep to defeat Patricia Tig in French Open first round

To the pleasure and displeasure of many, depending on who you ask, Naomi Osaka has made her choice. She has resolved to speak only with her tennis racket for the time being and in her first match at Roland Garros since 2019, she did so successfully. Osaka, the second seed, moved into the second round with a 6-4, 7-6 (4) win over the world No 63 Patricia Maria Tig.

It marked a helpful start after an unsatisfactory period for her on clay. Osaka is a dominant 23-1 on hard courts since the pandemic hiatus, but on clay she is 2-2. She has frequently cited her decision not to compete in juniors as one of the reasons for her unfamiliarity on the surface.

Clay-court tennis produces numerous impediments for a big-hitting, fast-court player like Osaka. The surface blunts her power and lessens the effect of her serve while rewarding topspin and those who master the specific movement on the surface. However, this encounter underlined that her own movement remains her main obstacle.

From early in the match, Osaka opted for the one plan that was sure to protect her unsure movement: she took control every time she could. Osaka struck 39 winners. She finished with 89% of points won on her first serve despite only one ace, demonstrating how effective it is at setting up quick serve plus forehand combinations.

As the match endured, however, the Romanian began to impose herself. Tig took more risks from the baseline, she landed more blows and she disrupted Osaka with ample drop shots. While Osaka entered the match attempting to slide, albeit awkwardly, into the majority of shots, the longer periods spent on the back foot exposed her lack of confidence in her movement. She slowly began to revert to taking inefficient steps each time she changed directions. She closed out the second set in the tie-break only because her serving and firepower was consistent enough to see her through.

One of the many logistical questions surrounding Osaka’s decision not to speak to the media in Paris was exactly what interviews she would permit. Media duties aren’t merely press conferences with written journalists, but also the on-court interview immediately after the match and television interviews with the official tournament broadcasters.

Osaka opted only for the fluff on-court interview with the former player Fabrice Santoro. He asked three questions: on Mother’s day, on returning to Roland Garros and about how she adapts her game to clay. The third question was perhaps the type she had hoped to avoid and she evaded it well: “I’d say it is a work-in-progress,” she said. “Hopefully the more I play the better I get.”

That was all. Osaka won’t be seen until she faces Ana Bogdan, another Romanian, in the second round. The biggest test for her could be Paula Badosa, the 23-year-old Spaniard who has recorded a 14-2 record on clay this year and looms in the third round. There will be many question marks should it happen. Her answer will only be heard on court.

As one multiple grand slam champion moved into the second round, another was brushed aside by an inexperienced challenger with ease. Angelique Kerber, a three-times grand slam champion, has won the third highest number of majors over the past decade behind Serena Williams and Osaka. She is also in a slump and, at 33, it is difficult not to wonder if another revival will come.

After being battered 6-0, 6-4 by the world No 66 Bernarda Pera in the Australian Open first round this year, Kerber embarked on her third consecutive grand slam first round loss in similar fashion as she trailed 6-2, 5-0 to No 139 Anhelina Kalinina.

At her best, Kerber was one of the mosta supreme athletes on the tour. She took pleasure from retrieving countless balls, absorbing all of the pace her opponents would generate and her ability to immaculately redirect the ball while at full stretch and on the run.

As Kerber’s physicality has naturally diminished with age, so too has the rest of her game. Kerber is 11-12 since the tour hiatus and she has not been a threat to her old rivals since early 2019. Her ranking of 27 is propped up by the pandemic ranking freeze – she is 45th in the WTA Race this year.

These days, there is nowhere to hide. Kalinina, 24, had arrived in the main draw with only one prior grand slam win and she has never reached the top 100, but she was also on a 13-match winning streak after winning two lower-level ITF tournaments before qualifying in Paris.

After looking apathetic and vacant for much of the match, Kerber found the energy that had been lacking and won four consecutive games at the close. It was not enough. Kalinina closed out the biggest win of her career 6-2, 6-4. Despite her frustration, Kerber explained afterwards that she has been training far better than she has played and she is hopeful that she will improve on her beloved grass. Time will tell.

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