Tennis: Osaka off to winning start at Nadal-dominated French Open

AFP , Sunday 26 May 2024

Naomi Osaka swept to her first victory at the French Open in three years on Sunday, setting up a potential showdown with world number one Iga Swiatek, as Roland Garros prepared to bid a possible farewell to Rafael Nadal.

Naomi Osaka
Japan s Naomi Osaka plays a shot against Italy s Lucia Bronzetti during their first round match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Sunday, May 26, 2024. AP

Osaka, a four-time major winner who has yet to get past the third round in Paris, needed three sets to defeat Italy's 48th-ranked Lucia Bronzetti on the showpiece Court Philippe Chatrier, 6-1, 4-6, 7-5.

The 26-year-old fired 31 winners, including six aces, and 45 unforced errors in a match where she gave up a 4-0 lead in the decider before finding herself 5-4 down.

However, she rallied strongly to register her first win at a Grand Slam since the 2022 Australian Open.

"It feels really nice to be back and I'm just really grateful to be here in front of everybody," said Osaka.

"I think there were moments when I played really well."

The Japanese star, a former world number one now at 134 in the rankings, has endured a bittersweet relationship with the French capital.

In 2021, she was fined for opting out of mandatory media commitments before withdrawing from the tournament in order to protect her mental health.

A year later, she fell in the first round before leaving the sport in September 2022 for 16 months to start a family.

Top seed Swiatek, chasing a fourth French Open, will face Osaka if the Pole gets past qualifier Leolia Jeanjean on Monday.

Later Sunday, Carlos Alcaraz, the reigning Wimbledon champion, begins his campaign against J.J. Wolf of the United States, a lucky loser from qualifying.

Andy Murray and his fellow three-time Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka will close proceedings in the night session.

World number three Alcaraz made the semi-finals last year where he was defeated by Novak Djokovic, revealing later that the prospect of facing the world number one had caused so much tension that his body cramped up during the match.

Wolf, ranked at 107, has won just one match on the tour in 2024. His only other main draw appearance at the French Open ended in a first-round exit last year.

Wawrinka, the 39-year-old 2015 champion, and 2016 runner-up Murray meet for the 23rd time, a rivalry which has included two semi-final clashes in Paris.

Murray is playing his final season on tour but whether or not 14-time champion Nadal joins him in retirement later this year remains to be seen.

He missed the tournament in 2023 with injury.

His 2024 appearance may be brief after he was drawn to face fourth-ranked Alexander Zverev on Monday.

"It's a big, big chance that this is going to be my last Roland Garros, but if I have to tell you it's 100% my last Roland Garros, sorry, but I will not. I cannot predict what's going on," Nadal said.

The Spanish legend has racked up 112 wins in 115 matches at the tournament since his title-winning 2005 debut when he was just 19.

He has 22 Grand Slam titles -- second only to Djokovic's 24 on the all-time men's list -- but his career has been plagued by injuries.

Nadal has played just four tournaments since January last year after suffering a hip injury and then a muscle tear.

As a result, his ranking has slumped to 275 in the world and he comes into the French Open unseeded.

"I have been going through a long process of recovery with a very difficult injury, almost two years of suffering, but I feel better now," he added.

"I have fewer limitations than three, four weeks ago, without a doubt."

French Open organisers were ready to stage a tribute ceremony for Nadal before he revealed that he could play on.

"We were ready to press the button on it," said tournament director Amelie Mauresmo.

"But it's Rafa who manages his timing, we follow what he wants. We wouldn't want to put him in an uncomfortable position."

In early action on Sunday, two-time quarter-finalist Andrey Rublev, the sixth seed, defeated Japan's Taro Daniel in four sets.

French number one Ugo Humbert, the 17th seed, crashed out 6-2, 6-7 (3/7), 6-3, 7-5 to Italy's Lorenzo Sonego.

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

 
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