Naomi Osaka says she relishes the prospect of facing tough opponents at the majors, something former world No.13 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova can confirm after becoming the Japanese star’s first-round victim at the Australian Open on Monday.
Former junior champion Pavlyuchenkova was chasing her third Australian Open quarterfinal in four years and fell only six spots outside the seedings, but any pre-match murmurs of an upset were quickly dismissed as third seed Osaka rolled home 6-1 6-2.
Following her withdrawal from the scheduled Gippsland Trophy semifinal on Saturday, Osaka preserved her unbeaten streak since tennis returned at the Western and Southern Open in New York last September.
She has now notched 14 wins on the trot, including her third major at Flushing Meadows last September, and her last defeat came 366 days ago to Sara Sorribes Tormo in a Fed Cup tie in Spain.
“I was really nervous coming into this match. I know that I’ve played her before and it was really tough,” Osaka said on Monday after easing past Pavlyuchenkova. “I just wanted to play well.”
“The most recent memory I have of playing her was in the Osaka final, so it’s always really hard to play someone that good in the first round,” Osaka said.
“For me, I feel like it might have also helped in a way because I calmed my nerves because I felt like I couldn’t afford to be that nervous. But, yeah, it was a tough match.”
As one of nine major champions in the bottom half of the draw, Osaka had fallen to the Russian in one of their three previous meetings, but had won their most recent showdown convincingly.
Last year, after the defending Australian Open champion had fallen to rising American teenager Coco Gauff in a third-round boilover, Pavlyuchenkova quietly set about carving her path to a sixth Grand Slam quarterfinal before Garbine Muguruza had her number.
Some 13 months on, in the first match on Rod Laver Arena for AO 2021, it was Osaka who found her feet the quicker of the two as she secured the opening set in 33 minutes.
The 23-year-old’s athletic ability was on full display as she moved effortlessly to thread a backhand passing shot down the line to land the early break for 2-1 in the second set.
Her only real wobble came when serving for the match at 5-2 as the Russian ripped a backhand return for 0-30.
That chance was soon snuffed out as Osaka closed out the contest with a heavy forehand, which drew the error long.
It was all over in 68 minutes and a welcome return to hearing the cheers of a crowd again at a major.
“Throughout the match I was really happy to have fans there,” Osaka said.
“I felt like there was more interaction than in New York because in New York it was just a generic crowd noise every point. Here it felt like they sort of weighed up whether I made a mistake and stuff like that. I thought it was more fun.
“(I’m) really happy to see people in the stands. It’s been a bit lonely in New York.
“In New York it was definitely a bit strange, but it was also really nice because in the finals all of the volunteers were in the stands and they finally got a chance to get good seats instead of just peering through the cracks.”
It is another dangerous first-week obstacle on Osaka’s path to a second Australian Open title, but no hurdle is too high.
“I saw the projected draw and actually, I’m kind of excited,” Osaka said.
“I like playing tough people, especially in Slams.”
While Osaka was dominating on Rod Laver Arena, 40-year-old Venus Williams was also making short work of her opponent on MCA nearby.
The veteran American ground out an impressive win over Belgian Kirsten Flipkens 7-5 6-2 to advance to the second round.
Source: Dan Imhoff