NEW YORK (Reuters) – Naomi Osaka was given a testing workout by Anna Blinkova as she began the defence of her U.S. Open title on Tuesday but the world number one’s power and shot making ultimately proved too much as she prevailed 6-4 6-7(5) 6-2.
The unseeded Blinkova raced into a 4-1 lead in the first set and a shock appeared to be in the works but Osaka cut down her errors to win five straight games and take the opener.
The tenacious Blinkova refused to back down, however, saving a match point on Osaka’s serve in the second before breaking her to set up a tiebreak, which the Russian won when Osaka sent a return into the net.
The 21-year-old Japanese responded by looking to her box and mimicked putting a gun to her head and pulling the trigger.
Osaka stayed composed in the third, however, breaking Blinkova to take a 3-1 lead before sealing the first-round win with a blistering forehand that caught the line.
It was an erratic performance for Osaka, who committed an unsightly 50 unforced errors, 28 more than her opponent, but also blasted 44 winners and pounded eight aces.
Osaka said the nerves that come with being a first-time defending champion played a part in her slow start and also gave credit to Blinkova for an impressive performance.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been this nervous in my life,” she said in an on-court interview at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“She played really amazing. And for me, I came off really slow. I never really found my rhythm. I fought as hard as I could and I managed to win.”
Osaka chose to look on the bright side of her unexpectedly competitive match against the world number 84.
“It helps me a lot because I learn from the tougher matches. It helps me prepare to have to adjust my gameplan throughout the match.”
The good news for Osaka is that her left knee, on which she wore a black compression sleeve, did not appear to bother her as she raced around the court to track down balls.
The injury forced her to retire in the third set of her Cincinnati Open quarter-final against Sofia Kenin this month.
She told reporters the knee was feeling better but stopped short of saying the problem was completely behind her.
Osaka, who is still managing the transition from being the hunter to being hunted, said she expected to see the best version of her opponents when she steps on the court nowadays.
“I know that everyone that I play is going to play super hard and they’re going to want to beat me,” she told reporters.
“They’re probably going to play lights out.”
Next up for Osaka is a second round meeting with Poland’s Magda Linette on Thursday.