It wasn't the University of Maryland-Baltimore County beating the University of Virginia. Not by a long shot. But unseeded Naomi Osaka nonetheless stunned the top seed in a very big tournament—Simona Halep, at the BNP Paribas Open—in a lopsided result that will leave fans talking a day later.
When Osaka announced herself to the tennis world with a third-round run in her first US Open main draw, in 2016, all who watched knew that her heavy serve and groundstrokes were going to be reckoned with in the coming years. A year and a half later, at the ripe old age of 20, Osaka has refined those weapons and is using them on a more consistent basis.
Her growth may have coalesced in her utterly dominant, 6-3, 6-0 win over Halep, who Osaka lost to in the fourth round at this year's Australian Open. Osaka is currently ranked 44th in the world, but her forthcoming appearance in the Indian Wells final, opposite fellow 20-year-old Daria Kasatkina, will give her ranking the boost it needs to ensure that she'll be seeded at this year's Slams.
Match point from Osaka vs. Halep:
That may be the only sliver of silver lining Halep can take away from this match—she won't have to worry about facing Osaka in the first two rounds at Roland Garros. But we're getting way ahead of ourselves considering the Romanian's uninspiring play that left fans on the east coast wondering why they stayed up until 2:30 in the morning.
Halep's error-riddled performance was contrasted with Osaka's steady and assertive tennis, as well as against the scillintating show Kastatkina and Venus Williams put on display earlier. Their 2:48 drama pushed Friday night's second semifinal to a late start, which Osaka was ready for and, clearly, Halep wasn't. The top seed won a paltry 28 percent of her second-serve points as Osaka converted five of seven break-point chances. Mercifully for Halep, the tournament website doesn't give an unforced error count.
The only question in this match was about Osaka's ability to close it out. Remember, her breakthrough run at Flushing Meadows came to a stunning end when she failed to hold a 5-1 third-set lead against Madison Keys. Halep earned break points in the 0-5 return game, but Osaka remained focused and diligent, albeit with screams of encouragement at herself after saving break points. She pushed herself past the finish line, though I think that if Halep converted even one break, Osaka would have felt significant pressure right away.
Instead, Osaka moves on, and Halep is left with a bitter pill to swallow. At this point of Halep's career, her goals are bigger than Indian Wells, but this was not the look of a confident, self-assured champion. In defeat in Melbourne, Halep came out looking as good as she could have, going down swinging. In defeat in Indian Wells, she opens herself up to more questions.
Things can change quickly in sports—just ask UMBC. And, on the flip side, Halep.
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