Osaka easily dispenses with Zidansek

  • Michael Beattie

Naomi Osaka overcame delays, a dip in form and a second-set tactical switch from opponent Tamara Zidansek to advance to the last 32 at the Australian Open for a third time, downing her fellow 21-year-old 6-2 6-4 on Thursday.

The No.4 seed, who will face Su-Wei Hsieh in the third round, was not entirely happy with her performance, but she still had too much for the Slovenian, who admitted to feeling a little star-struck facing the reigning US Open champion.

“It's weird,” Osaka said of the idea of being looked up to by fellow players. “For me, when I play Venus [Williams] or something, I'm star-struck, too. It's a bit weird when you tell me there's someone I'm playing that feels that way.

“I feel like she played really well today. When I go into matches like these, where I feel like I'm expected to win, I always think the other player's going to play, like, unbelievable. I feel like that mentality is helping me a lot.”

Osaka was made to wait for her second-round clash on MCA, which followed compatriot Kei Nishikori’s five-set battle with Ivo Karlovic, only to be interrupted by a sudden downpour during the warm-up.

Not that it seemed to knock the world No.4 off her rhythm. Osaka broke in the opening game, sealed with a deft drop shot that caught Zidansek cold, and although the Slovenian was gifted a break back to level up a 2-2, a couple more sterling return games were enough for Osaka to race into a one-set lead.

There were concerned looks in her camp when the trainer was called at the start of the second set to administer some medication, but between the lines Osaka seemed unaffected. While her first serve percentage recovered to a respectable 66 after a sluggish start, her conversion rate was anything but; through two matches, she has dropped just eight points after landing her first delivery.

Zidansek had ousted Australia’s Daria Gavrilova in the first round, but found herself facing a different brand of tennis against Osaka. The world No.78 plays to patterns designed to open the court on the third or fourth shot of the rally, but Osaka’s ability to attack off virtually any ball offered her few chances to build her points this way. 

In the second set, she looked to adapt, ramping up the aggression earlier in the rallies – and it almost worked.

Zidansek was left shaking her head after sending a drive volley long to gift Osaka a break point at 2-2 in the second, but responded by burying the same shot in the next rally. That sparked something in the Slovenian, who claimed seven of the next nine points to move into a 4-2 lead that visibly riled the typically serene No.4 seed.

Osaka channelled her frustration into the next game, reaching 15-40 courtesy of two inside-out forehand winners. Zidansek saved them both but crumbled on the third, shovelling Osaka’s return high and long to give up her brief lead. The Japanese No.1 then levelled at 4-4 with a 79-second hold before breaking to love, a 10-point streak that turned the set on its axis.

Zidansek refused to go quietly, reaching break point with Osaka serving for the match before saving a match point moments later, but it was not enough. A forehand winner down the line brought up a second for Osaka, who sealed the win with another unreturnable serve to wrap things up in 64 minutes.

“I didn't think I played bad today,” said the world No.4, who wears her status as a Grand Slam champion lightly. “I tend to analyse myself as I play. I know I could have made less unforced errors this match, so that's the biggest thing I take away after. Yeah, that's the number one thing I want to improve.

“I don't really feel that much different. A lot of people ask me about, like, how I feel after the US Open. But for me, it feels like a fresh start. I'm just really excited every time I play a match.”