INDIAN WELLS, CA, USA - Top seed Naomi Osaka got her BNP Paribas Open title defense off to a winning start after earning sweet revenge against Kristina Mladenovic, 6-3, 6-4.
The memory of the pair’s most recent meeting would have been fresh on Osaka’s mind - two weeks ago the World No.1 was stunned by Mladenovic in her opening match at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, falling in straight sets to give the Frenchwoman the biggest win of her career.
The match was Osaka’s first as the world's top player and as the reigning Australian Open champion - and she was contesting it coachless after parting ways with Sascha Bajin shortly after her Melbourne triumph.
But Osaka was quick to dismiss any panic, though, telling press in Dubai, “This was just one match... I still feel like I have a lot to learn.”
The Japanese player made some big changes between then and her Indian Wells rematch against Mladenovic. Osaka has since added Jermaine Jenkins to her coaching team, and proved on Saturday night that she could bounce back in style to claim her long-awaited first victory since lifting the Australian Open title.
“Seeing as it's my first match back here and everyone talks about, like, being a defending champion - and then playing her again - I think actually it was really good for me,” Osaka said in her Indian Wells post-match press conference.
“Because I learn the most when I lose matches, and I lost to her last in Dubai. And honestly, it was great that I got to play her again because I was able to learn from the mistakes I did back then, and I was able to apply it. It worked out pretty well for me.”
Osaka was dialed in from the start on Stadium 1 against Mladenovic, playing aggressive on the return and keeping the new Mladenovic serve under pressure throughout. It earned her a break chance at 2-2, before finally breaking through at 4-2 to take the lead.
As the Japanese player marched steadily toward the finish line, Mladenovic continued to press Osaka. She earned a break chance and saved three set points, but Osaka got the job done in the end, powering through to take the opening set 6-3 after 38 minutes.
Things got even more complicated for Mladenovic as Osaka continued to roll in the second set, keeping her momentum going to earn an early break for a 3-1 advantage. Osaka dodged a break point and responded emphatically to extend her lead to 5-2.
But just as Osaka was closing in on the finish line, Mladenovic finally earned her first break of the match after the Japanese player double faulted while serving for the match. She used it to power on to make it 5-4, but Osaka slammed the door on any comeback dreams and took the match after a Mladenovic forehand sailed long, claiming the victory in straight sets after an hour and 21 minutes.
Up next for the defending champion will be No.25 seed Danielle Collins, who turned heads earlier in the year with her semifinal run at the Australian Open. Collins took down Kirsten Flipkens in straight sets, 6-4, 6-1, earlier in the day to advance to the third round.
“To be honest, I remember I played her in Beijing but I don't really remember too much specifics on that match,” Osaka said. “But I know she played well in Australia, and I was remembering watching her semis against [Petra] Kvitova. I think I'm just going to have to watch a lot of videos.”