Over the past year, Naomi Osaka has experienced a number of firsts in her young career: winning her first title, winning her first Grand Slam tournament, breaking into the Top 10 and becoming No. 1.
This year at Indian Wells also represented a new situation: it's the first time she’s entered a tournament as the defending champion.
If her performance in her opening match is any indication, she’s more than ready to meet that challenge.
Osaka, playing only her second tournament since her Australian Open triumph at the beginning of the year, defeated Kristina Mladenovic on Saturday night, 6-3, 6-4. It was the Frenchwoman who stopped Osaka in Dubai only a few weeks ago.
Back then, Osaka had shaken up the tennis world by announcing her split with coach Sascha Bajin, who helped guide her to two consecutive Grand Slam titles. With a new coach, Jermaine Jenkins, by her side in the desert, Osaka was sharp from the start. After the two players stuck close to each other in the initial stages of the match, Osaka broke Mladenovic and then consolidated to take a 5-2 lead.
Mladenovic refused to go away, fighting off multiple set points. She couldn’t stave her opponent off much longer, though, as Osaka—showing emotion as if she were playing a final—served out the set.
In the second set, Osaka struck first by breaking serve in the third game to go up 2-1. The world No. 1 recorded another break a few games later to go up 5-2 after two missed volleys in a row by Mladenovic.
As Osaka served for the match for the first time, Mladenovic turned up the heat on her groundstrokes, particularly her forehand, to get a break back, then held serve. With Osaka serving for the match a second time, Mladenovic earned another break point, which the world No. 1 wiped out with a big serve down the T. Some solid net play earned Osaka a match point, which she clinched when Mladenovic struck a return long.
Having gotten through her first match as a defending champion, Osaka appears primed for more immediate success in Indian Wells, the site of her first major breakthrough. Next up for her is Danielle Collins, the surprise Australian Open semifinalist this year. The two have played once before, with Osaka trouncing the American last year in Beijing, 6-1, 6-0.