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INTERVIEW: Amanda Anisimova on her 7-5, 6-4 win over Naomi Osaka

The sky was gray, the air was heavy, the stands in Court Suzanne Lenglen weren’t full, and the hour, 11 a.m., felt a little on the early side for high-level professional tennis. But none of that seemed to matter to the two players, Amanda Anisimova and Naomi Osaka. From the start of their opening-round match Monday at Roland Garros, they did what both of them do best on a tennis court: Fire away.

The Florida residents are two of the hardest hitters and most offensive-minded women on tour. Neither specializes in chasing balls down or keeping the ball in play for long; which means that every point they play is a race to see who can gain control as quickly as possible, find an open court, and drill a ball into it. Volleys, drop shots, lobs, passing shots, defensive gets: They were almost non-existent today. This was tennis stripped down to serves, returns and ground strokes; the winner would be the one who could maximize her winners and minimize her errors with those shots.

Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion, is the more accomplished player of the two. But when it comes to pure ball-striking contests, it’s tough to top Anisimova. In January, at the Australian Open, these two pounded the ball at each other for three long, back-and-forth sets before Anisimova finally emerged a winner in a third-set tiebreaker. This time Osaka said she hoped she could use the clay and the damp conditions to send a spinnier, heavier ball at Anisimova.

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Naomi Osaka said she tried to hit with more spin in an effort to disrupt Amanda Anisimova's laser-quick strokes.

Naomi Osaka said she tried to hit with more spin in an effort to disrupt Amanda Anisimova's laser-quick strokes.

It was probably the right idea, and Osaka did make both close sets close despite feeling some pain in her injured Achilles’. But whatever the surface, and whatever the conditions, there’s no substitute for pace and accuracy, and Anisimova had the advantage in both categories. Each player ended with the same number of unforced errors—29—but Anisimova dominated in the winner category, 27 to 13. Osaka also didn’t help her cause with eight double faults.

“I just was trying to stay aggressive and keep going for my flat shots, because that’s what I thought would help me get the win today,” Anisimova said after her 7-5, 6-4 victory. “It was a bit tricky for me because it was harder for me to play my game. It was just tough conditions and I think it was just a tough match for both of us today.”

Osaka famously pulled out of this tournament last year, citing the toll of press conferences on her mental health. A year later, her struggles were physical rather than psychological. She said she was committed to playing on well on clay this year, and she imagined big things for herself in Paris. But she injured her Achilles’ earlier last month, which limited her practice time.

“I only played two matches on clay this year,” Osaka said today. “I wish I could have played more. Like I stayed in Europe for longer to be able to prepare for this tournament. So it’s a bit disappointing.”

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Osaka would surely like to avoid seeing Anisimova on the opposite side of the net at future majors.

Osaka would surely like to avoid seeing Anisimova on the opposite side of the net at future majors.

For Anisimova, the drama was indeed mental, and she had to struggle a couple of times to hold her emotions together. At 5-5 in the first set, she mistakenly volleyed a ball into the net that was going long. She covered her face with her hands, but instead of imploding, she gathered herself and came back to break serve a few points later.

Later, at 2-2 in the second set, Anisimova came back from 40-0 to 40-30 on Osaka’s serve, before missing the easiest of swing volleys by five feet. Again, she covered her face with her hands; but again, she gathered herself and held serve in the next game with an ace.

Finally, Anisimova served for the match at 5-4. Everything was fine to start. She made her first serves, she hit her forehand winners, and she went up 40-0, triple match point. Then she missed a backhand into the net. Then she missed a forehand into the net. Now she had one more match point left, and rain was on its way. How would she play it?

Need you ask? Anisimova fired away as soon as possible. In this case, that meant taking a backhand from behind the baseline and rifling it, with no margin for error, along the sideline for an all-or-nothing winner. What would have happened if the ball had touched down an inch wider? Fortunately for Anisimova, we’ll never know, because it landed on the line.

“I just have a lot of confidence right now with all the tournaments that I have played so far, so I’m just happy,” said Anisimova, who has made the quarterfinals or better at the last three clay-court events, and will play Donna Vekic in the next round.

It takes confidence to hit the backhand she hit on match point against Osaka. Is it the type of shot that can launch a deep run at a major? We’ll find out soon.

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