NEW YORK, NY, USA - No.1 seed Naomi Osaka's US Open title defence continued in stellar fashion with a quality win over the in-form Magda Linette 6-2, 6-4 in one hour and 10 minutes.
The Japanese player sped to the first set but had to overturn a 0-3 deficit in the second, striking 12 winners to garner her second win over Linette in a major this year. Having lost to the Pole in their first meeting last year in Washington, Osaka would go on to win her first major in New York a month later - and then, after avenging the loss to Linette in the first round of the Australian Open in January, proceeding to her second Grand Slam crown.
"I feel like I had my moments where I played really well," said Osaka afterwards. "Of course, there were moments that I didn't play as well as I wanted to. But I think the main thing for me was that I was able to adjust whenever I figured out something was going wrong, so I think I'm heading in the right direction."
There was an added comfort level, she stated, of having played Linette twice before: "One of the biggest things when I play her is just knowing that she likes to play consistent, and she moves pretty well - so I just try to get her moving and... assert myself." This meant that, unlike in her opener against first-time opponent Anna Blinkova, Osaka felt "very calm" coming into today's match.
Linette came into today riding a nine-match winning streak, having lifted her own maiden trophy last week in The Bronx as a qualifier. But the World No.53 was smothered by Osaka's depth and pace in the first set, able to strike only two winners - but more often overpressing, racking up 10 unforced errors. The defending champion, meanwhile, conceded just six points behind her delivery - despite landing only 35% of her first serves - while breaking Linette twice, drawing gasps with some of her more sudden injections of pace on the forehand side.
But having been able to play within herself in the opening act, Osaka had to demonstrate her fighting qualities in the second as Linette raised her game. The 27-year-old, aided by a sudden flurry of groundstroke errors and a pair of ill-timed double faults to go down break point from Osaka, began to display the kind of tennis that took her to the Bronx trophy. Now, it was Linette's forehand winners wowing the crowd as she made her way to a 3-0 lead and held three break points for the double break lead.
With her back to the wall, Osaka was able to come up with a pair of clutch serves and to find the mark with a big forehand to escape danger, and came up with a brilliant backhand down the line to seal the hold. Thereafter, momentum shifted abruptly and the pattern of the first set resumed. Losing control of her groundstrokes once more, Linette's unforced error tally mounted to 20 - while Osaka, constructing points carefully and finishing them efficiently, reeled off five straight games, winning a stretch of 21 out of 24 points in the process.
"I just told myself to look in the mirror and notice that I'm the player that's supposed to be more aggressive," reflected Osaka on her turnaround. "I think that that's what I did better throughout the second set."
Linette would halt Osaka's run to force the 21-year-old to serve out the match, but this merely delayed the inevitable: hammering down a few more unreturnable serves, Osaka sealed victory on her first match point with a winning volley, just her second net foray of the day.
Up next for Osaka in the third round will be either qualifier Timea Babos or what would be a blockbuster encounter against 15-year-old wildcard Coco Gauff - whom the top-ranked player has been befriending recently. "I saw her in the locker room," Osaka explained. "She wasn't really talking to anyone. I was, like, Oh, looks familiar. I'm just going to talk to her. I know she's super young, and I know it's sort of hard to transition."
Still, it's for competitive purposes that she's anticipating an on-court showdown. "She's super sweet and I would love to play her, of course," said Osaka. "For me, when I hear people talking about someone, I want to have the opportunity to play them just to assess it for myself. You know what I mean? So, yeah, definitely would love that, but at the same time I know she's going to have to get through a tough opponent. I'm fine with whoever I play."
In general, Osaka also revealed that the open letter she had posted on social media at the start of August, in which she opened up about her "really rough" moments in 2019 but looked ahead with excitement for the future, has been a boon to her mindset ever since.
"Writing that and posting it before the start of the US Open Series really helped me relax my mind, because in a sort of selfish way, it made me able to make clear to everyone where I was headspace-wise," Osaka elaborated. "And for me I think the biggest thing was, like, I put a lot of pressure on myself to be perfect. I think that sort of makes other people expect a lot from me, too. So I just wanted to clear the air in that way.
"I'm not really thinking too much anymore. Like, I used to think about everything. I used to think, if I have this amount of points, I can stay No.1. If I have this amount of points, I can get into this tournament or whatever. I think right now [I just want] to play really good tennis. For me, that's the foundation of getting to the top, and I think somewhere along the way in Europe I lost that. So yeah, I feel like I'm having fun again... I'm not even thinking about winning this tournament right now. I'm thinking about my next match, and I know it's either going to be Coco or Babos. So I sort of feel free."