Naomi Osaka has a knack for elevating her game on the biggest stages, and she did that again on Monday night to move into the second round of the US Open.
The world No.3 opened her title defence with a 6-4 6-1 win over Marie Bouzkova at Arthur Ashe Stadium and will next take on Serbian qualifier Olga Danilovic for a place in the last 32.
Osaka arrived in New York with little momentum, but back on the world’s biggest court – where she has already won two US Open finals – and playing in front of an atmospheric crowd, it seemed that a hint of her major-winning aura had returned.
“I definitely had a much clearer mindset,” said Osaka, who withdrew before her second-round match at Roland Garros to preserve her mental health, then lost in the third round at both the Tokyo Olympics and in Cincinnati when she returned to competition.
“I gain confidence with each round I play. It's definitely relieving to be able to win this match in two sets instead of three.
“But I also feel like I learned a lot in this match. Being able to open up the court more in the second set, I feel like that's something I maybe should have done a bit earlier in the first set.
“Honestly I didn't feel pressure today. I don't really know how to describe it. It may have to do with, like, my mindset change. So I didn't feel pressure today. But I think I felt nerves because I wanted to perform well.”
This mindset change was outlined in a message Osaka penned in Notes and posted to social media on the eve of the tournament.
It was an encouraging message to read from the Japanese star, given her mental struggles in the weeks prior.
She admitted to feeling overwhelmed by the pressure and the spotlight that accompanied her prominent presence at her home Olympic Games in Tokyo.
And she was forced to temporarily suspend her pre-tournament press conference in Cincinnati after she broke down in tears.
She explained that her latest social media post was somewhat cathartic.
“Honestly ever since I could remember I've been kind of going into my Notes app and posting how I feel. Usually when I do that, I feel some sort of resolve,” Osaka said.
“I think for me something that's less than perfection, even though it might be something great, is a disappointment. I don't really think that's a healthy way of thinking. So (that’s) something that I really wanted to change.
“In this tournament I just want to be happy with, like, knowing that I did my best and knowing that even though I didn't play perfect I was able to win.
“It's not really a tournament thing, it's more like a life thing. Like I hope I can keep this mindset throughout my life going forward."
So far, this mindset seems to be translating to success on court at Flushing Meadows.
Osaka has now won her past 16 matches at major tournaments and 18 of her past 19 at the US Open, where her career record improves to a sparkling 22-3.
Reinforcing her status as one of the game’s best frontrunners, she is now 47-1 in Grand Slam main draw matches after winning the first set.
She erased all eight break points she faced against Bouzkova and struck her 34th winner of the match – an off-forehand in behind the Czech – to end the contest in just over 90 minutes.
“My serve's definitely one of my biggest weapons. It's able to come in when it's really necessary,” she said.
“But hopefully it won't be that needed in the future.”