In slugfest win over Sharapova, Naomi Osaka shows a veteran's mettle

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Naomi Osaka's powerful game was ultimately too consistent for Maria Sharapova to handle. (AP)

INDIAN WELLS, Calif.—Naomi Osaka is winning matches like an experienced veteran at the ripe old age of 20. The latest example of her early maturity came on Wednesday night, at the BNP Paribas Open, when she ousted former No. 1 Maria Sharapova, 6-4, 6-4.

"I didn't think it was a complete loss when I saw the draw. Of course I was really excited," Osaka said. "I thought that I've played more matches that her this year so I feel like I had that advantage."

Only three ranking points separate the No. 44-ranked Osaka and No. 41-ranked Sharapova, but there's also a 10-year age gap and the difference of five Grand Slam titles.

“I knew she was going to fight for everything because I’ve watched her since I was little,” said the 20-year-old Osaka, who reached the fourth round of a Grand Slam for the first time at this year's Australian Open. “I was just really honored I got the chance to play her and I really wanted to have fun. Even though I banged my racquet I tried to just focus.”

Sharapova has had a less-than-ideal start to her 2018 season. After a third-round loss to Angelique Kerber in Melbourne, she was dumped out of the first round in Doha by Monica Niculescu.

“I love playing when there's something on the line, when I come in with a little bit more than maybe other players. I enjoy that and I've done well with it in my career,” Sharapova said in Doha. “Thriving on that is extremely important, and being consistent and mentally strong and not letting other things get in the way.”

“Other things” could mean an array of factors, but these days it seem to mean Sharapova’s opponents. Osaka has been on a rapid rise since she arrived on the scene in 2016 with third-round runs at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows, improving seemingly match by match. Already this season, she has collected wins over Top 20 players Kristina Mladenovic, Ashleigh Barty and Elena Vesnina. By contrast, Sharapova’s best victory in 2018 has come over Anastasija Sevastova.

Osaka got off to the faster start on Wednesday, winning the first three games before holding with ease for 4-1. Her huge serve is one reason why many compare her to a certain big-serving GOAT, Serena Williams.

The Haitian-Japanese star openly idolizes Williams. Perhaps she even took some inspiration from Williams’ 19-2 record against Sharapova, for Osaka was in command for most of this night match. (Osaka also happens to be working with Sascha Bajin, Williams' former longtime hitting partner.)

"Sorry, I was always rooting for Serena," Osaka said about the Williams-Sharapova saga. "I remember being really impressed by Sharapova. You would never know what she was thinking because she never really got upset and she was always fighting."

Sharapova, as always, was unruffled by her less-than-perfect play, clawing back to 4-4 in the first. But as has also been the case for the 30-year-old, her serve let her down. She hit a costly double fault at 4-5, 15-30, giving Osaka a set point that she quickly capitalized on.

Osaka is no stranger to upsets—she dismissed defending champion Kerber in the first round of last year's US Open—and she kept her momentum going in the second set, scraping to a 4-2 lead. Her inexperience showed briefly, losing a service game from 40-0 up to let Sharapova back in.

With every loss, the thought that Sharapova may never return to her Grand Slam-winning ways grows stronger. But knowing the Russian, and her appetite for discipline and battle, that seems unlikely. Facing down the barrel of another defeat, she fought back to 4-4, but Osaka didn't let this match slip away from her control. Her shots maintained their pace and placement, keeping the opportunistic star at bay.

"I feel like before maybe if she came back I probably would have gotten really upset," Osaka said. "I was thinking that I would be really disrespectful to start getting angry if I'm playing Sharapova. Who do I think I am to start getting angry against her?"

With Sharapova serving to stay in the match at deuce, 4-5, another ill-timed double fault doomed her. Just like that, Osaka pocketed her first career win over Sharapova on her very first match point to earn a second-round showdown with Agnieszka Radwanska.

"I would say definitely one of my best [wins] just based on her being her," Osaka said. "There are three people I wanted to play, Venus, [Sharapova] and Serena. Now I'm just waiting to play Serena."


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