Naomi Osaka continues her title defense against the very tricky Zheng Saisai, who has beaten her before on hard courts, at the Australian Open on Wednesday.
Naomi Osaka vs Zheng Saisai is live from Melbourne on Wednesday 22 January at 11am local/12am GMT
Osaka got off to a solid start at the Australian Open as she returned to Rod Laver Arena for the first time since defeating Petra Kvitova in a three-set thriller to claim her second major title in Melbourne twelve months ago.
In the intervening year, Osaka has had some tough moments, splitting with two coaches, gaining and then losing the world no. 1 ranking, and failing to defend her US Open title when she lost in the fourth round to Belinda Bencic. But Osaka’s season did end strongly, with back-to-back titles at the Toray Pan Pacific Open and China Open, and she finished 2019 on a 11-match winning streak, having won her opening match at the WTA Finals Shenzhen before being forced to pull out.
Osaka extended her winning streak to 14 matches with a run to the Brisbane International semifinals, winning a series of tough three-set battles against Maria Sakkari, Sofia Kenin and Kiki Bertens before losing to eventual champion Karolina Pliskova after holding match point. And against Marie Bouzkova, the Czech who made a surprise run to the semifinals of the Rogers Cup as a qualifier in 2019, Osaka showed the benefits of having had the experience of being the defending champion at a major before, as she recorded a 6-2, 6-4 win on Monday.
Osaka said afterwards:
‘I understand that I don’t have to play perfect in the first round. It’s more about building your level up and getting comfortable with yourself.
‘That’s one of the biggest things I have learned. Also, just understanding that every match you play is probably going to be very difficult and being okay with that.’
It certainly wasn’t perfect; Osaka made plenty of unforced errors, had to save break points in the early going and trailed 2-4 in the second set before coming back to win the match.
But she served and returned well, and turned things around in the second set when it was easy to imagine an earlier Osaka dropping it and finding herself mired in a third-set battle.
The defending champion has a nightmare draw, however, and it will only get harder with each round, with world no. 42 Zheng Saisai a potential obstacle between Osaka and the third round.
Zheng was ranked a career-high world no. 36 at the end of 2019 after compiling some great results throughout the season, most notably at the Premier-level Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic in San Jose where she beat Danielle Collins, Amanda Anisimova, Maria Sakkari and Aryna Sabalenka on her way to the title, the biggest of her career. Also a champion at the WTA 125k in Anning, Zheng made the last 16 at Premier Mandatory events in Madrid and Beijing and ended the year at the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai, where she beat Madison Keys.
Now 25 and clearly coming into her own, Zheng started the 2020 season with a three-set defeat to Elena Rybakina – who went on to reach the final and then win a title the following week – in Shenzhen, but impressed with a 6-3, 6-2 victory over qualifier Anna Kalinskaya for just her second main-draw win at the Australian Open to set up the clash with Osaka.
‘I think I played Saisai once a couple years ago, and she’s a very tricky player. She slices and dropshots from what I could see of her matches in the past.
‘I think it will be probably a match where I have to dictate a lot and just stay consistent and be positive. Because there are going to be times where I do think I’ll be frustrated.’
It’s a good assessment, although Osaka has actually played Zheng twice, losing to her on hard courts in Gifu as a teenager in 2015, but beating her in qualifying for Madrid the following year in straight sets. Zheng is a much improved player over the past 12 months or so, but Osaka’s analysis is spot on: Zheng can’t match Osaka for power, and will do everything she can to take time away from the Japanese-Haitian player, yank her around the court, disrupt her rhythm and generally make her uncomfortable.
Players like this do have much success against Osaka, who needs to serve well, keep her unforced errors down and stay focused throughout the match, not allowing Zheng to put her off her preferred first-strike power tennis game. Osaka is capable of doing it, however, and she seems quite mentally energized. The defending champion should come through – although perhaps not in straight sets.