MIAMI, FL, USA - No.1 seed Naomi Osaka made her way into the third round of the Miami Open for the first time since her 2016 debut with a 6-0, 6-7(3), 6-1 over qualifier Yanina Wickmayer, with two dominant sets sandwiching a mid-match dogfight.
This time last year, the Japanese player entered Miami as the freshly minted Indian Wells champion - and, still unseeded, scored a statement first-round win over childhood idol Serena Williams before falling to Elina Svitolina. Today, though, with her meteoric rise earning her the top slot in the draw, Osaka delivered a performance worthy of her status with 51 winners and 14 aces - although not everything went to plan.
"It was really hard for me, I think, emotionally in the second set because I just started thinking about winning, not exactly the things I could do in order to win," Osaka revealed afterwards. "So, yeah, I had a bit of a dip. She was also playing really well. I think between the second and third set I tried to breathe and regroup."
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From the off, Osaka demonstrated an ability to suddenly inject point-ending pace into rallies, firing two huge forehands en route to an immediate break. Moreover, she simply wasn't missing, committing a meagre two unforced errors (to nine winners) over the course of a 22-minute bagel first set. Wickmayer never found the solution to this, caught between either attempting to rally with Osaka and watching winners flash past her, or trying to end points even quicker - leading, more often than not, to error.
The US Open and Australian Open champion's serve also widened the gap between the two players: landing 71% of her first serves, Osaka conceded just two points behind her delivery in the first set.
Though Wickmayer has had a lean couple of years - the former World No.12 ended both 2017 and 2018 outside the Top 100, and her first-round win over Sachia Vickery this week was just her fourth at WTA main draw level in 17 months - the 2009 US Open semifinalist has shown signs of life recently, reaching the ITF W60 final in Shrewsbury in February and entering today with a 12-8 win-loss record this year. The Belgian wiped the slate clean to put together a remarkable second set, pumping herself up, serving more efficiently - tallying six aces - and coming up with 20 winners to only five unforced errors.
Consequently, a first set whitewash morphed into a second set dogfight, with seven of its 12 games going to deuce. Osaka, facing sterner resistance, would find her unforced error count suddenly mounting (totalling 24 in the set) - but, demonstrating a champion's ability to adjust and rise to the occasion, nonetheless won the first three multi-deuce tussles, holding for 1-1 on her eighth game point, staving off three break points to level at 2-2 and eventually breaking for 3-2 with a series of forehand return hammer blows. Impressively, though, Wickmayer continued to hold firm, breaking back with a brace of backhands down the line and putting Osaka under repeated pressure as the 21-year-old clung on to the set.
Though Osaka was able to come up with the goods on enough key points to force a tiebreak, it was the 2010 quarterfinalist who peaked in the tiebreak, reeling off seven out of eight points from 0-2 down: as Osaka let her lead slip by dramatically misjudging a volley and a smash, Wickmayer rubbed salt into the wound by serving her ninth and tenth aces consecutively to reach set point, duly converted when Osaka netted a backhand.
Osaka's 62-match winning streak after taking the first set is one of the World No.1's most renowned statistics at the moment - and beneath it lies a rare ability to reset after letting leads slip. So it proved in the decider: rallying with more patience and serving multiple aces per game, Osaka resumed control with a quick 3-0 lead.
It was reminiscent of her performance in the Australian Open final, when Osaka resumed the deciding set against Petra Kvitova strongly despite missing three championship points in the second set. Back then, she told the press that she had shut down emotionally in the decider, and today was a similar story: "I find myself doing it often when I'm really in emotionally stressful situations," said Osaka. "I find it easier to focus when I do that."
Last year's Indian Wells champion then found some of her first-set magic to stave off any thoughts of a Wickmayer comeback. Lightning-sharp returning put the five-time WTA titlist under pressure in the sixth game, and Wickmayer couldn't withstand it, serving her only double fault of the match on Osaka's third break point.
Just about home and dry, Osaka served out to love, belying the dramatic fluctuations of the previous two hours and nine minutes - but her draw gets no easier, with No.27 seed Hsieh Su-Wei, against whom she had to battle back from a set and 1-4 down at the Australian Open, awaiting.
"That match, whew," recalled Osaka jokingly. "She's unpredictable. She can hit winners from anywhere, it seems like. She has a slice, dropshot. Feels like she has everything. For me it's tough to play her because I don't know what's going to happen. It's that unpredictability that I think makes her play really well and beat all the top people."