The theme on the women’s side so far in Miami has been a predictable one: rust. Some of the top players have been off the road for more than a month. Throw in a dose of South Florida humidity, swirling winds on the grounds at Hard Rock Stadium, and the logistics of a Covid bubble, and you had the making for a sluggish start in general.
Fortunately for the tournament, three of the tour’s most recognizable names have shaken off their rust just in time to survive their opening matches. On Thursday, Ash Barty came back from 2-5 down in the third set to beat Kristina Kucova, and Simona Halep refused to cave to a hot-hitting Caroline Garcia. On Friday, it Naomi Osaka’s turn to feel the heat—from the air, and from an inspired opponent, Alja Tomljanovic.
“I was feeling a bit nervous,” Osaka said, “I saw a lot of fans out there.”
Osaka came into the tournament, which is held a few miles down the road from where she grew up, on a 21-match win streak. She says she’s trying to think about that, and that she wants to treat her homecoming as a “new adventure.” For better or worse, her 7-6 (3), 6-4 win over Tomljanovic was just that.
Osaka was broken in her opening service game, and again at 2-2. She struggled to find the range on her ground strokes, overhitting some and leaving others in the net. It was Tomljanovic, who already had a main-draw win under her belt this week, who was more accurate and penetrating with her shots. The frustration built for Osaka until, at 3-5, she threw her racquet to the ground.
“My decision-making on some shots was kind of questionable,” Osaka said, with a bit of her trademark understatement.
In hindsight, throwing her racquet wasn’t one of those bad decisions; it seemed to give her the release she needed. A few minutes later, with Tomljanovic serving at 5-4, Osaka broke at love, with two forehand winners and her loudest “Come on!” of the day. She played the ensuing tiebreaker with the same intensity, hitting a forehand winner, a backhand winner, and two unreturnable serves, to run away with it.
To her credit, Tomljanovic never lost hope, or played scared, or stopped creating break chances. But she could never cash in on one when she needed it, and could never grab the lead again. To me, her lack of belief revealed itself most clearly on three makable backhand returns that she missed, all on Osaka second serves.
The first came with Osaka serving at 4-3 in the tie-break; the ball was there for Tomljanovic to drive, but she mishit it into the net instead. The second came when she had a break point at 1-0 in the second set; this time Tomljanovic sent it long. The third came in the final game, when she was up 15-30 and had a chance to break and get back in the match; instead, Tomljanovic pushed her return an inch wide, and Osaka served it out from there.
It’s not as if Tomljanovic doesn’t own that return; she hit it for a blazing winner on at least once occasion on Friday, when it didn’t count for quite as much. But this is what happens when a player wins 21 straight matches and two straight majors; their opponents are just a little more nervous on balls they would normally make nine times out of 10.
Unlike Tomljanovic, Osaka didn’t have any trouble connecting on her best shot.
“I served really well when I needed to,” the No. 2 seed said, “when it really, really mattered.”
Nothing shakes the rust off faster than an ace, right? Osaka will try to keep firing them, and keep making better decisions, in her next match, against 81st-ranked Nina Stojanovic.