Osaka wins battle with Stephens to launch Indian Wells campaign
INDIAN WELLS (AFP) - Four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka would not be blown off course in her return to Indian Wells, outlasting Sloane Stephens 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 in a blockbuster first-round clash.
Japan's Osaka, playing her first tournament since a third-round exit at the Australian Open saw her plummet out of the top 80 in the world rankings, was a break down at 0-2 in the third set but won the last six games to secure the victory over former US Open champion Stephens at the WTA and ATP Masters event.
In gusting Calfornia desert winds, Osaka saved three break points in the third game of the third set to launch her final rally of a match that featured a string of momentum shifts.
She polished it off by breaking Stephens at love in the final game.
"I felt like I was fighting for my life," Osaka said. "I was playing against her, I was playing against the wind. It was crazy.
"I just kept thinking she was going through the same circumstances as me, so I just had to will my self to try as hard as I could."
The winds were picking up just as Osaka and Stephens took Stadium Court, with afternoon shadows making things even more difficult in the early going.
Osaka seemed to settle in quicker, taking a 3-1 lead, but Stephens won five straight games to pocket the opening set before Osaka roared back in the second - winning four games before Stephens managed her lone service hold.
The marquee first-round match was an outlier at Indian Wells, where all 32 seeded players in both the men's and women's draws enjoy first-round byes.
But Osaka and Stephens were not among them, Osaka starting the week ranked 78th in the world and Stephens 38th, although the American came in on the rise after claiming her first title since 2018 in Guadalajara last month.
"She's such a great champion," Osaka said. "Hopefully next time we play it'll be in more ideal conditions."
Osaka advanced to a second-round meeting with 21st seed Veronika Kudermetova.
Osaka is back at the prestigious Indian Wells hardcourt tournament for the first time since 2019.
She won the title in 2018, her first WTA trophy launching a breakout campaign that included the 2018 US Open crown.
She added a second US Open title to her resume in 2020 and won the Australian Open in 2019 and 2021, but her second Melbourne triumph was followed by well-documented struggles that put a spotlight on the mental health of athletes in a wide range of sports.
She arrived at Indian Wells saying she felt "at peace" with herself, and confident that she was on the right path despite her early Australian Open exit.
Should she go deep into the tournament, Osaka would not have to worry about the current top-ranked players in the world. No. 1 Ashleigh Barty withdrew saying she had not fully recovered after her Australian Open triumph, and world No. 2 Barbora Krejcikova pulled out late with an elbow injury.
World No. 3 Aryna Sabalenka and No. 4 Iga Swiatek are the highest-ranked women in the field.
Poland's Swiatek opens her campaign on Friday with a second-round clash with Ukraine's Anhelina Klainina.
Reigning US Open champion Emma Raducanu of Britain is also in action on Friday, taking on France's Caroline Garcia.