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Naomi Osaka’s U.S. Open Title Defense Starts With Nerves, a Small Crowd and a Win

Nearly a year ago, Naomi Osaka summoned remarkable nerve and composure to block out thunderous discord and beat Serena Williams in perhaps the most contentious United States Open final ever.

On Tuesday, she returned to the same court, but under markedly different circumstances. Fifty weeks ago Arthur Ashe Stadium heaved and pulsated as Williams argued with tournament officials over several disputed calls. But for Osaka’s first-round match against Anna Blinkova of Russia on Tuesday, the building was quiet and mostly empty.

Yet Osaka, a 21-year-old from Japan, said she was more nervous in this match than she had ever been before on court.

It showed, too, as the top-seeded Osaka played sloppily and carelessly, making 50 unforced errors to Blinkova’s 22. Still, Osaka prevailed, defeating the 20-year-old Blinkova, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-2, to avoid becoming only the sixth top-seeded woman to lose in the first round of a Grand Slam tournament.

ImageCreditHilary Swift for The New York Times

“I’m kind of really glad that’s over,” Osaka said afterward.

The last defending U.S. Open women’s champion to lose in the first round was Angelique Kerber, in 2017. She lost to a player ranked 45th in the world, a 19-year-old by the name of Naomi Osaka.

Osaka attributed her nerves on Tuesday to the fact that it was the first time she had walked on court at a Grand Slam tournament as a reigning champion, and she said she knew it would have been disastrous to lose the opening foray into defending her title.

She compared it to her defense of a title in Indian Wells, Calif., where she won in 2018 and lost in the round of 16 this year. But the pressure she exerted on herself Tuesday seemed to be double that.

“The amount of nerves that I felt today was completely different than in California,” Osaka said, adding that the feeling never went away.

ImageCreditHilary Swift for The New York Times

Osaka was also playing in some discomfort from a left knee injury she sustained this month at a tournament in Mason, Ohio. She acknowledged after the match that the soreness had not completely subsided, and it appeared to affect some of her ground strokes and serves.

She came back from a 1-4 deficit to win the first set, then blew a match point in the second set, allowing the plucky Blinkova to force a third. But Osaka regained her focus and drove Blinkova off the court with her superior power and speed.

“I didn’t really expect myself to play amazing today,” Osaka said.

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The match began a few minutes after noon, which did not seem a fitting time slot for the defending champion and No. 1 seed. Williams, the winner of six U.S. Opens and a record 23 major singles titles in the Open era, played the first night match on Monday, defeating Maria Sharapova in straight sets of their marquee matchup.

Tournament officials scheduled Sloane Stephens, another American and the 2017 U.S. Open champion, for the opening match under the lights in Ashe on Tuesday night, against Anna Kalinskaya. That left Osaka, who is also the reigning Australian Open champion, to play the first match on a weekday, when it is most difficult to fill the arena.

Not surprisingly, the atmosphere was flat and quiet for much of the match, in vivid contrast to the 2018 final against Williams. Another big difference from that final was that this time the audience — as much of it as there was — was decidedly in Osaka’s favor.

ImageCreditHilary Swift for The New York Times

Osaka said she was not consulted about the timing of her match and added that she did not care, either.

“I love the heat,” she said. “So I’m fine to play in the day. Playing at night just means you can sleep in more. So I’m cool either way.”

When she walked on court, only a few thousand people were inside an arena that holds over 23,000. Upon her introduction, the audience clapped, but there was no sustained ovation in recognition of her accomplishment on that tumultuous evening the year before.

That night, fans booed loudly and angrily — not at Osaka, but at what they perceived as an injustice perpetrated against Williams by the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos. The boos continued into the trophy presentation. It was a confusing situation that brought Osaka to tears, marring what otherwise would have been a night of unadulterated joy over winning her first Grand Slam title.

But having endured that cacophony may have helped Osaka get through a bad case of nerves on this quiet Tuesday afternoon.

“I have been lucky enough to play on Ashe a couple of times,” Osaka said. “I just feel like I’m more used to the big atmosphere. I think that definitely helped me in certain moments. I feel like I at least try to draw on the things that happened to me in the past.”


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