*Flushing, NY – Naomi Osaka, WTA world no. 1, kicked off her campaign to defend her US Open title inside Ashe Stadium on Day two of the event. Her last time inside the stadium was both triumphant and heartbreaking. She won her maiden Grand Slam title against her idol, Serena Williams, there, but she was reduced to tears by boos and jeers emanating from the crowd over the controversy between Williams and line judge, Carlos Ramos (he’s banned from officiating any Williams sister match this year). Could she really put that behind her just play tennis?
Based on her scratchy play during the match, she did appear to be haunted by the past. Who really knows what was going on in her head, but she struggled to maintain her focus the entire match. She took the first set 6-4, but it wasn’t at all pretty. She wasn’t so fortunate to escape her erratic play in the second, however. Her feisty opponent, Anna Blinkova, was finally able to capitalize on one of the many chances she received to break Osaka and leveled the match by winning the second set tiebreaker, 7(7)-6(5). The world no. 1 has been known to turn matches on a dime, however, and was able to do just that in the third. She eked over the finish line with what she called “razzle dazzle:”
“Yeah, I mean, I feel like there was a term for it last year, because I remember last year I did it a lot [won 3-setters],” she said. “I would call it razzle-dazzle. So, like, after [I won] the match I would be, did you like that razzle-dazzle?”
The final score was 6-4, 6(5)-7(7), 6-2.
She’ll move on to “razzle dazzle” Poland’s Magda Linette in the 2nd round.
Meanwhile, Taylor Townsend, an up and down former juniors phenom was able to recover over on Court 7 from going down the first set to Kateryna Kozlova and win her match. Townsend had plenty of opportunities in the first to get it done in straights, but she lost her cool during the important points and made too may careless errors. After the lost set, she reset and in between games pulled out a notebook and apparently drew instruction or inspiration from its contents. Whatever the book contained, it helped her steady her game and ultimately win the match, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2. It was a good come from behind win, but she’ll need to clean up the errors and get her running legs tight, because she’s up against the relentless Romanian and former world no. 1, Simona Halep in the second round.
Next up was last Wimbledon’s Cinderella, and our countrywoman, Cori Gauff. She made a name for herself on the London grass, beginning her campaign against her idol, Venus Williams. Gauff ended up not only winning that match, but also making her way to the round of 16 … in her very first Major tournament. So, the pressure was on to bring that level of play to the US Open.
She was up against Russia’s Anastasia Potapova, a fellow teen (just 3 years older) and juniors tennis cohort (both former no. 1s and both have GS titles). Potapova had a point to prove and likely saw Gauff as a mere peer who needed to be put back in her place; and the Russian came out pumped and firing winners to bring that to fruition. She darted out to a 3-0 leave, breaking Coco in her first service game. The struggling American looked to be at a loss for a solution and looked over at her box with flailing arms:
“I needed more positive energy,” she said. “I was nervous. Just looking at them when they’re giving me a fist pump gives me a little reassurance. I think they were nervous. They wanted to stay more reserved, too. I was like, No, I need you guys to come on, stand up, I’m losing 3-Love, I need something to help me.”
They obliged and that’s where the fight began and she found her own “razzle dazzle” to see her through.
Gauff earned plenty of chances, but Potapova wouldn’t release her death grip on the big points. In under 27 minutes, the Russian increased her first set lead to 4-1, then buoyed by the crowd and Cori’s box, the momentum swung. She road the wave and nabbed two more games, recovering one break for 3-5. However, the American was unable to stop the pumped up Russian from closing out the set, 6-3. It was still game on, though.
Coco dropped her serve in the first game of the second set, but was able to quickly recover, leveling it with a break back for 1-all. At first she didn’t have the pop on her ball that her opponent had and had to rely on placement to survive her service games, but as she grew more confident in her shots, she began to take control. She broke at 3-2 and put a little distance between the two, then played smart tennis to extend her lead to 5-2 and go on to take the set by breaking again for 6-2. She let out a fist pumping roar and her box rose to their feet and did the same.
At the start of the third set, both players reset and came out and exchanged breaks of serve. But from there, Coco went on a tear and darted out to a 4-1 lead on her frustrated opponent. But the Russian pulled out a trick and called for a “medical timeout” due to an “ailing shoulder.” That tactic cooled Coco’s momentum and once they resumed she lost her lead:
“Honestly, I just wanted to win so bad, I was trying to really dig deep,” she said after the swing. “I was like, ‘you got to make her play. She’s not going to hand it to you.’”
Then at 4-all, the Russian found her composure again … but Coco was not to be denied. The American got down 0-30 on her service game, but dug deep to hang on to her serve for 5-4. The crowd was electric and 100% on her side and she fed off the energy, taking the next game and the match, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4.
“I mean, it was crazy,” she said of the win and the atmosphere. “Obviously I was nervous going out on the court. It’s such a big court. Then my home slam, so I wanted to do well. The crowd really helped me the whole match. Like, it was really a great atmosphere to play in and a great experience for me.”
Her second-round opponent is Timea Babos of Hungaria.
Maryland native, Frances Tiafoe, also notched a first-round wind on Day two. He needed to overcome 6’11” Ivo Karlovic, who usually dismantles players with his thumping serve alone. Tiafoe was up to the task, however, and had his towering opponent on the ropes, down two sets, 2-6, 3-6 … but that’s where it unexpectedly ended. The Croat retired and gave Tiafoe the walkover. He’ll need the reserves to face his next opponent, the unpredictable but capable opponent, Alexander Zverev.
And last but not least, Sloane Stephens, a former champion at the Open had the honor – or dishonor – of closing out the night session inside Ashe on day 2. She’s no stranger to the massive stadium, as she’s gone as far as to have won the championship, but her current form or lack thereof finds her packing to go back home and figure some things out. She came Flushing this year having reunited with the coach who helped her win that aforementioned title, Kamau Murray, but maybe it was too little, too late. She struggled to find her rhythm against Russian qualifier, Anna Kalinskaya. She struggled on second serve points, didn’t convert on some of her break chances. Poetic justice maybe, since her “new” coach is embroiled in controversy with his now-former client, Monica Puig? Puig claims Murray didn’t inform her the reason he wouldn’t be accompanying her to this year’s Open was because he was reconnecting Stephens. She says she was caught off-guard by the news, which she only heard via the media.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with me, so… Her side is her side,” Sloane said of the controversy.
“But I don’t think we should make it a big situation. I’m sure she’s fully aware of what happened. If she has a problem, then she should approach me. It’s not like I don’t see her all the time.”
“Yeah, to go to you guys and say everything that has been said I think is a little inappropriate. But it is what it is. We move on.”
Whatever the case, neither of the ladies made it past the first round.